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A Study of Haiti and the Haitians, in word and photograph, from the 
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TAHITI: Voyage Through Paradise by George T. Eggleston 

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IRISH FOLK WAYS by E. Estyn Evans 

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23 East 26th Street New York 10, N. Y. 


A Narrative of 
Tristan da Cunha 

by D. M. BOOY 

This is the story of a remote island in the 
South Atlantic and the people who live 
there, twelve hundred miles from any- 
where and almost completely cut off from 
the rest of the world. 

The 2OO rather shy individuals who live 
on Tristan da Ounha speak a mixture of 
Cockney and Southern Negro dialect and 
are descended from a boatload of British 
sailors who were stationed there with their 
wives in 1816 in order to circumvent the 
possible escape of Napoleon Bonaparte 
from St. Helena. An occasional shipwreck 
since then has infused the colony with 

fresh blood and furnished some of that 

most prized commodity., wood for housing. 

How this tiny colony lives today -with- 
out laws yet without crime, without church 
or school but with a deep respect for tra- 

{continued on back flap^) 

23 East 26th Street New York 1O 

Kansas city nil public library 

kansas city, missouri 

Books will be issued only 

Please report lost cards and 

change of residence promptly. 
Card holders are responsible for 

all books, records, films, pictures 
or other library materials 
checked out on their cards. 


A Narrative of Tristan da Cunha 


illustrated with 
Jrfteen pages of photographs , 
and drawings by 



New York 1958 

Copyright <> 1957, 1958 by 

All rights reserved. No portion 

of this book may be reproduced 

in any form without tvritten 

permission from the publishers., 

The Devin-Adair Company 

23 East 26th Street, Netv York 1O, 

except by a r&ui&uoer y tvho may quote 

brief passages in connection -with a review. 

Canadian agents: Thomas Nelson <6- Sons, Ltd.,, Toronto 
Library of Congress Catalog card number: 539752 
Manufactured in the United States of America 




For permission to include the map on pages 89 and, unless 
otherwise acknowledged, photographs from his collection I 
wish to thank Mr Allan Crawford now Lieut. Crawford 
of the South African Navy and Welfare Officer to Tristan da 
Cunha who was "with me on the island during the war. 


1. A Spot on the Map ....... i 

2 . A Rock in the Sea . . . . . . .11 

3. Worlds Apart . . . . . . .19 

4. Dance of Welcome . . . . . .25- 

5. On the Shelf 3 ! 

6. Alone with the Past ....... 36 

7. An Exile's Home ....... 42 

8 . A Year Begins ........ 49 

9. Meet the Elders ....... ^6 

10. The Spinning-wheel . . . . . . .66 

n. Unfriendly Neighbour . . . . -73 

12. The Wheel of Fortune . ..... 83 

13. The Workaday Week . ...... 88 

14. The Weekly Custom ....... 95- 

15. The Lamp of Learning . . . . . . 101 

1 6. A New Grave . . . . . . . .106 

17. Holding the Fort . . . . . . . in 

1 8 . Work in the Sun . . . . . . .116 

1 9 . Love in the Shade . . . . . . .121 

20. Fireside Topics . . . . . . . .126 

21. The Cold Grip ........ 134 

22. The Echoing Cry . . . . . . .139 

23. Open Hearth ........ 147 

24. Wild Pursuit . . . . . . . .154 

25-. Season of Spite . . . . . . . .162 

26. The Sea's Bounty . . . . . . .168 

27. Scraping Cards . . . . . . .173 

28. Time to Go . . . . . . . .179 

29. Day of Departure . . . . . . .18^ 

30. Past and Present . . . . . . .191 




Tristan from the North-east 
The Author 

Building a house 

Old Sam Swain 
Mrs Repetto 
A * carding' party 
A bullock * train' 
Island boats 



Ready for launching 

Marie, an island girl 

The Patches 


A Rockhopper penguin 

Hauling a boat up the beach 
Wife greets husband 
Edinburgh settlement 
The Duke of Edinburgh 
going ashore 

Tom Swain 

Two island families 

A Tristan child of to-day 

Tristan da Cunha 

between pages 20 & 21 
between pages 52 & 53 

between pages 84 & 85 

between pages 116 & 117 


between pages 132 & 133 

between pages 164 & 165 

pages 8-9 







A Spot on the Map 

WE FACED adventure with grim reluctance. The spirit of 
Drake, if it was present at all in our little party, quailed before 
the chill, dank breath of the South Atlantic. 

Under the darkened coast of the Cape Peninsula we waited on 
a jetty in Simon's Bay. The day had glowed with promise of 
spring; but the night was clenched and raw, an unhealed wound 
of winter. Tiny hopes, hatched in our hearts by the African 
sun, dropped dead at dusk like ephemeral flies. Waves broke 
along the shore with a dismal crash, and the ebbing water clucked 
sadly under the sea- walk. 

We waited for an unknown ship bound westward from the 
Cape. Against the pale expanse of harbour the masts and rigging 
of moored vessels stood up in hard, black lines. A sombre, 
mellow half-light lingered over the bay, as if constrained to share 
our vigil waiting for the ship that would carry us into exile. 

Months previously, in an Admiralty office, a map had been 
unrolled; a mere spot had marked the position of an island, 
British property; a pointing finger from a gilt-ringed sleeve had 
commanded the establishment there of an outpost, its purpose 


officially veiled. And so we, a dozen names on a naval draft-list, 
had been given our destination & desolate rock in the southern 
ocean, inhabited already by a strange colony of people lost to the 

We waited in silence. The mountains, like humpbacked 
monsters, crouched around the bay to watch our departure. 
Under their flanks, the gleaming track of the electric railway 
threaded a chain of little towns, following the arc of the surf, 
then swerved away across the dark Flats * Alle Stasies na Kaap- 
stad* : it was a line we had often travelled. 

Occasionally, from the doorway of the Africa Station Club, 
just outside the dockyard gates, came a jagged shaft of light and 
noise. Inside, not more than an hour before, in the atmosphere 
of smoke, laughter, and slopped beer, we had taken our last drink 
ashore with friends whom we should probably never meet again. 
Now, among kit-bags, hammocks, and chests, we stood or paced 
on thd jetty another pointing finger that dismissed us with 
peremptory gesture to try the hospitality of sea-birds and the 
company of castaways. 

We had heard confusing tales about those inhabitants. Some 
said they were white, that they spoke English, and were friendly; 
others said they were mad and best left alone. 

The first settlers had been British. They had been joined by 
others, men and women of many nationalities, survivors of ship- 
wreck, recluses, and voluntary exiles, who through several 
generations had continued the colony. They proclaimed them- 
selves members of the British Empire. But they lived in a world 
and time of their own, preserving the customs and dress of the 
early settlers. Their only visitors were whaling ships and 
explorers far from the regular sea-routes. They could know 
nothing of our way of life ; and we knew nothing of theirs . Until 
recently most of us had not even heard of the island called 
Tristan da Cunha. 

Like our august superiors in the Admiralty office we had con- 
sulted a map. Ours was on a page of a small red atlas. It 


showed the whole of Africa and a large blue area of South 
Atlantic Ocean. 

Several pairs of eyes roved the empty sea spaces at the left side 
of the page, until a cry * There it is! ' announced our landfall: 
a tiny speck between the ten- and twenty-degree lines of longi- 
tude. It just managed to edge on to the same page as the 
continent of Africa. On a map of the world at the front of the 
atlas the dot appeared almost as near to South America as to South 
Africa, and a pencil-line ruled from Cape Town to Montevideo 
passed a little above it. 

Almost in the Roaring Forties ! 

We gazed at it for a long time with mingled awe and misgiving. 
Its smallness was appalling. It looked like a fly about to land on 
the giant profile of Africa. 

One member of the party tried drawing a ring round it to 
make it look bigger. 

From the South Atlantic Sailing Directory we acquired facts, 
but learned little. 

Tristan da Cunha is the largest and only inhabited island of a 
group of three lying far south in the Atlantic about i ,200 miles 
south of St Helena, 1,500 miles west of the Cape of Good Hope, 
and i , 800 miles from the coast of Uruguay. 

Its closest neighbour is Gough Island, 2^0 miles to the 
south-west. That is uninhabited. Tristan da Cunha is farther 
from the nearest populated land than any other island in the 

It covers thirty square miles, but most of it is uninhabitable 
an extinct volcano rising to a peak of 6,760 feet above the sea. 
The other components of the group are Inaccessible Island, eight- 
een miles to the south-west, and Nightingale Island, twenty miles 
to the south. These are occupied by birds. 

History told a story as bizarre as the travellers' tales. The 
island was discovered in 1^06 by a Portuguese admiral, Tristao 
(or Tristan) d'Acunha (or da Cunha), who gave it his name and 
handed it back to the seals and sea-birds. For two centuries 


afterwards it was forgotten, snoring in its foam. In the eigh- 
teenth century it was remembered by sealers, whalers, and 
pirates. Belonging to one of these classes, probably the last, was 
Jonathan Lambert of Salem, who landed there in 1 8 1 o with two 
of his shipmates, one an American called Williams, the other 
half English, half Italian named Thomas Currie. Lambert pro- 
claimed himself king of the three islands and rechristened them 
the Islands of Refreshment. The name survived until Lambert 
and Williams died or rather disappeared: what happened to 
them was known only to Thomas Currie, who lived on as ruler 
and solitary inhabitant of the islands. 

In 1 8 1 6 a garrison of soldiers was sent from South Africa to 
prevent any attempt by way of Tristan da Cunha to rescue the 
exiled Napoleon from St Helena. The soldiers found there a 
castaway who called himself simply Italian Thomas. He said 
that he had lived on the island for six years alone. Questioned 
about Lambert and Williams, he admitted that they had been 
there but said they had been drowned while out fishing. 

At the garrison canteen Thomas became drunk daily, spending 
handfuls of gold from some hidden store. When drunk, he 
made lurid allusions to the disappearance of Lambert and Williams 
and boasted of the treasure he had, buried in a chest which he 
and his shipmates had brought ashore. The soldiers flattered 
him, plied him with more and more drink. He hinted that 
he would disclose the hiding-place to the man who pleased him 
most. One day, primed with rum to the verge of revelation, 
surrounded by a tense audience, he lifted his arm to point and 
fell dead. The soldiers dug and searched and grovelled, but 
found nothing. 

A year later, when the world began to outgrow its dread 
of the vanquished emperor, the garrison was -recalled from 

Perhaps it was a lingering hope of finding the treasure ; perhaps 
it was a weariness of the world or the desire for a life of rudi- 
mentary hardship; perhaps it was the possession of a brown- 
skinned wife and two coffee-coloured children, that made 


William Glass of Kelso, a Scots corporal in the Royal Artillery, 
beg permission to remain behind on the island with his family. 
Two other men, Samuel Burnell and John Nankivel, stayed with 
him for a while, but subsequently left. It was William Glass 
who in 1 8 1 7 founded the colony of Tristan cfc Cunha. 

During the era of sailing ships Glass's settlement was aug- 
mented by survivors of the many wrecks on Tristan and its 
neighbour, Inaccessible Island. Even when the captains of other 
vessels offered passage away from the rock many of the castaways 
preferred to stay there . Whaling ships often called in those days , 
and sailors deserted from them or were set ashore at their own 
request to join the growing community, of which Corporal Glass 
was now called Governor. 

Their worst hardship was loneliness. The other settlers 
envied Glass his wife and children. At last, in 1 827 against the 
advice of their much-married governor they persuaded a certain 
Captain Ham, of the sloop Luke of Gloucester, to bring them some 
women from St Helena, their nearest inhabited neighbour. One 
man, Thomas Swain, vowed that he would have the first who 
stepped ashore. When the sloop returned she carried five 
women, all volunteers to join these men they had never seen. 
Four of them were mulatto girls; the fifth was an elderly, 
widowed Negress accompanied by four children. Tom Swain 
was held to his vow: it was the old Negress who led the way 

These women, with the wife of Governor Glass, were the only 
coloured settlers in the history of Tristan. Many more men 
joined the colony, all of European race British, American, 
Danish, German, and Dutch. They greatly outnumbered the 
women. The language adopted as common was English, though 
the accents must have made a strange medley. 

Almost the only crop grown there was potatoes. These and 
fish formed the mainstay of the islanders' subsistence. As the 
visits of the whaling ships, on which the settlement depended for 
barter, became less frequent, life involved constant privation. 


Once a vessel called at the island and found the population facing 
starvation because of the failure of the potato crop ; no ship had 
been sighted during the previous three years. 

From the eighteen-fifties onward missionaries were sent out at 
irregular intervals by the Society for the Propagation of the 
Gospel. The ministers usually stayed for periods of three to six 
years, and ensured a modicum of education for the children. 
But there were long spells when the settlement had no clergyman, 
when marriages, christenings, and funerals had to be solemnized 
by Governor Glass or one of the successive headmen and the 
children derived their only education from their parents. 

In 1 8 8 came disaster. Fifteen of the able-bodied men put out 
in their lifeboat to a ship, hoping to barter for much-needed 
provisions. Some of the watchers on the beach afterwards 
declared that the boat had been overwhelmed by a heavy sea just 
before reaching the ship ; others maintained that they had seen the 
men taken on board and that the vessel had immediately got under 
way again, taking the islanders. The village was left the home of 
widows and children and four men. At the time there were 
nineteen families, some with as many as seven young children. 
Of the remaining men, one Peter Green, the headman was 
seventy-nine ; another, Andrew Hagan, was sixty-seven ; the third 
had gone mad and was tormenting the village ; the fourth was the 
only able-bodied man to defend it. 

Somehow the settlement survived. The children grew up, the 
boys learned early in their lives to do the work of men. Many 
of the families which had emigrated from the island after the death 
of Governor Glass returned, disillusioned with the outer world. 
Further shipwrecks brought new blood, including Italian. Again 
the population increased; and again, as in the early days, there 
were more men than women. At the time of our setting out 
from South Africa, in October 1942, the total population, 
including children, was given as about two hundred. This 
number, we gathered, was ample to offset any dangers, mental 
or physical, from intermarriage. Indeed the excellent health 
and physique of the islanders and especially the remarkable 


soundness and whiteness of their teeth, in spite of their soft 
potato diet had become almost a legend. 

We had no idea of what our reception would be. About the 
present habits and conditions of the islanders we had only a few 
vague notions, founded mostly on the contents of a glass case in 
the public museum at Cape Town. 

That case held the only material evidence for our preconcep- 
tions : a pair of oxhide moccasins, the hair on the outside ; a model 
of a canvas-covered boat ; a tall, old-fashioned spinning-wheel, the 
kind at which the spinner had to stand, twirling the wheel by 
hand; a sheepskin mat; and some stuffed penguins and molly- 
mawks. We knew that the people were without the comforts of 
life as we knew it and that they would have no knowledge of the 
mechanized and war-harrowed world of Europe as we had left it. 
In our more sanguine moments this last fact appeared clearly as a 
consolation; and the news that a small advance-party, containing a 
padre, an officer surgeon, and some South African engineers, had 
already gone out to the island and were in radio communication 
with Simonstown, had been sufficient to buoy our spirits until 
dusk marooned us on the jetty and the night wind blighted our 

Gloom, settling over the bay, invaded our hearts. A motor- 
launch crept mysteriously, with engine silenced, alongside the 
jetty; and, like a wraith from the water below us, appeared a 
wiry, brown-faced old monkey of a seaman with faded red 
badges on his arm. He was the coxswain of the launch and was to 
take us out to the ship when she arrived. Some rumour of the 
destination of our draft had stirred in him a malicious and ironic 
humour. He said little; but his silence, after the garrulity of 
well-wishers ashore, and the satirical glint of his eye hinted at a 
wealth of unwelcome secrets with which he could have fore- 
warned us. 

We had tramped for miles up and down that jetty before we 
glimpsed, behind the tracery of masts and spars in the harbour, a 
new set of masts and two squat funnels creeping along. A ship 







Scale in Statute Miles:- 










steamed slowly into the bay. We heard her anchor go down. 
Under the expressive gaze of the coxswain we stowed our stores, 
our kit, and ourselves aboard the launch. She nosed away from 
the jetty and chugged out across the choppy water, rolling gently. 

A lighter, towed out by another launch from one of the other 
jetties, arrived before us, and as we came in under the tall hull of 
the steamer some kaffir boys were already loading drums of oil 
aboard her from the lighter. There was much shouting across 
the water from them as we manoeuvred to get to the lowered 
gangway. A few ghostly faces peered down over the ship's side 
as we clambered up, dragging our kit. But they had disappeared 
by the time we arrived on deck. The coxswain of the launch 
grinned up at us a malicious farewell and from the rail we watched 
his craft shoot away, churning a great arc of silver as she turned 
and bounced back shorewards, the light from her hatch flaring 
out across the dark water. 

The ship remained oblivious of our embarkation, until at length 
a little cockney steward came along, and with a jaunty 'Follow 
me, mates ! ' led us to some quarters near the crew's mess. Here 
we bunked, and later in the night we heard the rattle of the 
anchor chain coming up and felt the roll of the ship under way. 


A Rock in the Sea 

AFTER WE left the Cape the weather changed for the worse. 
Wave crests were lashed to a flying white foam. Our ship, the 
Highland Chieftain ? plunged through deep swells that rolled away 
beneath her like the furrows of some vast, watery ploughland. 
At night the wind thrust icy fingers through the openings of oil- 
skins, duffle-coats, and jerseys; the spray lacerated raw faces 
buried in upturned collars. This weather continued for four 
days an ominous prelude to our adventure. Black skies sagged 
with rain, and as the winds rose our spirits sank. Visibility 
was limited to a low, ragged horizon, at which we stared in 
gloomy question. On the fourth day we had our answer. 

It was late in the afternoon of ^th October 1942. A clammy 
mist rose like steam about us . Thin squalls of rain struggled with 
blasts of wind. Out of the grey and tossing sea, barely a mile 
away, a great dark rock lifted its head, like the barnacled brows 
of some forbidding sea-monster dripping with slime. 

As we approached, the rock assumed character as an island. 

1 1 


Its peak passed out of view in sodden clouds ; the grim, seamy 
sides were green in patches with a sparse carpeting of grass that 
looked more like moss ; the scarred cliffs were hemmed with a 
line of leaping foam, where the ocean tide raged at the obstruc- 
tion. Here and there we saw high, dank crevices, choked with 
vegetation, and falls of water cascading down grooves in the stony 
face ; but most of the mountain was stark and barren. 

This we took to be one of the two uninhabited islands of the 
group, probably Inaccessible and rightly named, it seemed, for 
on the side of our approach at least there was no possible landing- 

We had come out of the mist from the east. Now we 
changed course and rounded the northern butte of the island. 
To our surprise and dismay we saw a broad beach of black 
volcanic sand under the sheer wall of the mountain ; and at the 
far end of it a low grassy plateau, raised above the level of the 
beach like a green shelf on which was perched a miniature 
village. So this, after all, was Tristan da Cunha. 

As we came in closer the little huddles of grey stone took shape 
as cottages, one or two of them clearly discernible, others almost 
indistinguishable from their murky background. Soon we could 
see wisps of chimney smoke harried by the wind, and a flag 
beating madly against a mast on top of a grassy knoll, with what 
looked like a toy cannon crouching beside it. 

Behind the settlement the mountain slanted steeply back and 
up into the storm-clouds; in front the cliffs dropped another 
hundred feet to the strip of boulder-strewn shingle that widened 
in some places to a beach. A number of boats lay there, hauled 
up high and dry. Where sand was visible it was black ; a bare 
dune of it formed the main beach east of the ledge on which the 
village stood. 

The sea nearer inshore was too rough to permit a landing that 
evening. Without dropping anchor, the ship steamed past the 
settlement and stood out to sea again. Out of sight of the island, 
in the mist and darkness, we spent the night cruising around at a 
safe distance from the rock, waiting for a break in the weather. 


On the following morning we came in again and this time were 
able to anchor less than a mile from the shore. The sea was still 
swelly but the surf appeared less frantic. Tiny figures moved on 
the black beach, pushing off boats. We watched the little craft 
lifting their bows to the waves, tipping over, and vanishing in the 
troughs, then reappearing. For a long time they seemed to be 
making no headway and to us it looked a superhuman task to pull 
against such a sea. Then almost as if the ship herself had 
suddenly changed position the boats were within hailing dis- 
tance. A few minutes later the first of them was alongside, the 
oarsmen warding her off from our wallowing hull. 

The islanders appeared not at all disconcerted by the rough sea. 
One moment the boat was right under us, her gunwale knocking 
against the ship's plates, the next moment she was riding away on 
a great swell, the men still clutching our rope and laughing up at 
us . Several of them stood erect with careless equilibrium on the 
thwarts. When the ship threatened to roll over on them, one of 
the islanders would thrust the boat off again by pressing an oar 
against the ship's side. 

With mingled curiosity and misgiving we looked down at the 
men who were to be our hosts and daily companions for months 
to come. They were dressed in a motley of old and patched 
garments. Many wore sailors' jumpers, white or blue, and 
peaked blue caps. Their complexions ranged from markedly 
swarthy to unexpectedly fair and their features were of European 
cast. Without exception they were tall and muscular-looking. 

We had been told that they spoke English, but the scraps of 
outlandish dialect that came up to us were unintelligible. The 
boatmen talked and laughed among themselves, but in a quiet, 
restrained manner. Obviously they were unused to strangers. 
They returned with interest our stares of barefaced curiosity, but 
did not call up to us. They had none of the easy, impudent 
familiarity of the natives of an African or eastern port. 

In the first boat came the doctor and a petty officer of the 
advance-party to meet us. They were accompanied on board by 
one of the islanders, a large, heavily built man in a blue reefer 


jacket with brass buttons. When introduced to us, he dragged 
a cap from his head and addressed us in a deep, powerful voice, 
calling each of us 'Sir.' His accent seemed to combine elements 
of Scots and Afrikaans in a strange, slow drawl. We understood 
little of what he said beyond that we were welcome to the island. 
His name, we learned from the petty officer, was William 
Repetto and, although the men of Tristan claimed to be all equal, 
he was called ' Chief. ' His father had been an Italian sailor ship- 
wrecked on the island, who had made his home there and been 
recognized before his death as headman. 

The present Chief seemed as proud of his parentage as a high- 
land clansman and solemnly conscious of the weight of his office. 
Throughout our conversation he managed, in spite of his 
embarrassment and his isolation within a ring of sailors on the 
rocking deck of a strange ship, to preserve something of the 
ponderous dignity of an ox and a little, too, of the slow- 
wittedness. But there was no sign, either in William Repetto 
or in the men waiting in the boats, of the mental deficiency we 
had been led by some informants to expect. 

The first business was that of conveying us and our personal 
belongings ashore. The doctor and the petty officer, a South 
African, remained on board to direct the landing of the heavier 
supplies. One by one, carrying our personal kit, we descended 
the swinging Jacob's ladder into the nearest boat. Helping 
hands guided us from below, but a stolid shyness precluded any 
spoken word of greeting from the island men. Our presence 
among them became at once an embarrassment and an object of 
intense curiosity. 

We found seating space in the stern-sheets, and the oarsmen 
as if by a prearranged signal outside our notice or else by some 
silent mutual understanding all gave way together and began 
pulling shorewards with long, deep strokes. There appeared to 
be no captain, even self-appointed, and no word of command was 
uttered. It was a long time before even -the helmsman spoke; 
and then it was only to give directions as to our approach to the 
shore. The quiet, almost apologetic tone of his voice implied 


that he was merely issuing information, nothing so presumptuous 
as instructions. 

For a long time we seemed to be coming no nearer to the 
beach, although the ship receded farther and farther behind us. 
Then the boat entered a dense tangle of that seaweed known as 
kelp, with wide, undulating leaves of a dark, brownish green 
that float just below the surface, and strong pale stems that rise 
from a depth of fifteen fathoms or more towards the light. A 
thick reef of this extraordinary growth encircles the island at a 
distance of a quarter of a mile off shore. The tough, twisting 
arms of the plant have some of the groping and clutching power of 

It took us several minutes to thrust our way through the belt of 
weed, the oarsmen taking short, jabbing strokes whenever 
possible, each independently. When a blade became fast in the 
tangle, the rower would jerk the oar sharply inboard until it was 
free and then thrust it out again into the next space of clear water. 
Proceeding in this haphazard fashion, rather like a gigantic water 
spider with its legs weaving tentatively in the air at every step, 
we threaded our way through the reef, to find ourselves in 
relatively calm water and not far from the beach. Such was the 
beneficial effect of the kelp, acting as a bar against the more 
tumultuous seas. Instead of breaking, the waves were trans- 
formed into great, swelling rollers, which bore us rapidly to the 

Without any warning, in that same manner of tacit compre- 
hension, all hands stopped pulling at the same stroke. The boat 
was carried high by the surf and as it grounded on the shingle the 
island men leapt out, grabbing the gunwale and pushing to retain 
the momentum, while a rope tossed to the villagers waiting on the 
beach was caught and pulled by all available hands. We too- 
jumped ashore, while the boatmen, barefooted and with trousers 
rolled up to their knees, waded through the ebbing surf, hauling 
their craft up over the squeaking, cascading pebbles and slippery 
fronds of derelict kelp. 

High and dry on the beach, we stood in a hesitant group, 


uncertain of our reception, until guidance came in the form of 
a tall, black-browed young islander who introduced himself as 
'Sindey' Glass. He had fierce, dark eyes and a swarthy face, 
which split unexpectedly into a white, gleaming smile. 'You- 
all come along of me/ he said. 'I show you-all where you 
gonna live.' 

Shouldering twice as much of our kit as any of us could carry, 
and with half the effort, he trod quickly and lightly over the 
pebbles. It was then that I noticed his shoes oxhide moccasins 
exactly like those in the museum at Cape Town. Their effect 
was a shock to me: suddenly the world evoked by the strange 
curios in the museum a world only half believed in had 
become real. It was as if we had landed at Deal and been greeted 
by Britons in woad and skins. 

Sidney as we suspected his name of being led the way from 
the beach up a steep, stony road towards the grassy level above. 
The men below were unloading our stores, and as we climbed the 
slope we saw the boat which had brought us ashore being pushed 
off again, the last man leaping in as the water splashed about his 

Above us, on the green knoll by the flagpole, were clustered 
the women of the settlement, wearing ankle-length dresses of 
white or coloured cotton, with bright kerchiefs over their 
heads. They were like a colony of hens fluttering their plumes. 
We had been prompted by reports in Cape Town to expect an 
effusive welcome of kisses from them; but these rumours proved 
as wildly untrue as most other information with which we had 
been primed. We found the women silent and withdrawn, 
though agog with interest. On our route up from the beach we 
passed two girls of about seventeen or eighteen, stray chicks from 
the hen-roost above. They were huddled against the bows of an 
overturned boat, scared at their own audacity. As we passed 
close to them they clung to each other in a tension of fear but 
returned our gaze with wide, wondering eyes. They looked 
very odd in their billowing white dresses with coloured sashes, 
their dark hair drawn tightly back and partly hidden under their 


headkerchiefs . Both were fair of complexion and one was attrac- 
tive, mature, and plump in her youthfulness. But so still and 
quiet they were, and yet so daring in their solemn-eyed curiosity. 

We reached the grassy plateau and, following our dark-faced 
guide, trudged along the road towards the settlement, passing 
a little tower of stones in which stood a lantern evidently a 
beacon for the boats at night. The road was no more than a 
track. On either side spread downy turf with outcroppings of 
the native rock, and huge boulders tumbled in the short grass. 
Crossing a deep, gurgling stream by a bridge constructed of 
wooden beams raised at each end on blocks of stone, we came into 
the village. 

Most of the able-bodied population was apparently down on 
the beach or on the cliff-top watching the passage of the boats to 
and from the ship ; and the few islanders who had followed us kept 
at a long distance. So the settlement was almost deserted. But 
as we walked along the rough path between the cottages occasion- 
ally a face peered furtively through a window or a bright dress 
flitted through a low doorway into safe obscurity. 

It was now that we became conscious of a sound that seemed to 
encompass that forgotten settlement, a mournful sound, like an 
endless threnody woven into the scene around us: the muffled 
moaning of the surf beneath the cliffs. Its effect was to intensify 
the lost, eerie silence of the place. 

Directly above the cottages loomed the mountain, a disturb- 
ing presence, dwarfing this precarious foothold above the sea. 
About us thatched roofs glistened with raindrops and the wet 
grass was a dark green. In the cottage gardens if such one 
might call mere enclosures within walls of loosely piled stones 
flourished a species of tall tussock grass, and the stiff spearheads of 
Australian flax rattled in the breeze. Everything seemed odd and 
still, unreal, as if suspended in time. The settlement was like a 
village that had died long ago, but of which the veiled shape, like 
a mirage, was preserved in the vapour of the sea, which still 
murmured, as it had for age after age, night and day, its deep 
monotone beneath those cliffs. 


These first, strained impressions of Tristan gave to our 
premonitions of the months ahead an uneasy sense of being lost 
and forsaken, exiled from the world. Our quarters, already 
prepared on the western fringe of the village, were good; but 
even about them lurked the same atmosphere of unreality. The 
very blankets on our bunks, issued from naval stores at Simons- 
town, had a strange sea smell to them. That odour clung to 
everything on the island. It was a faint but unwholesome smell, 
as of things lost in the ocean and changed by the action of the 
tides. Perhaps, after all, it was only the smell of rotting kelp. 

When, in the afternoon of that first day of ours on Tristan, 
the ship which had brought us vanished in the haze of the western 
horizon, bound for gaudy ports in South America, a mood of deep 
dejection closed down on our party. The wireless communica- 
tion that it was our task to maintain with the outer world seemed 
a thread of connection as slender as the aerials that were to 
carry it. 


Worlds Apart 

FOR THE first few weeks of our exile as we chose to consider it 
the wind and rain conspired to keep us in that despondency which 
our first impressions had produced. It was a long time before 
this mood was dispelled by a closer acquaintance with islanders. 
In the meantime we had an opportunity of learning a great deal 
about ourselves and one another. 

We were as mixed a party as any selected at random from the 
Navy's files no more and no less so. It seemed absurd that in a 
company so small and isolated there should have developed at 
once three distinct communities on traditional naval lines. The 
segregation only further accentuated our isolation. 

One group consisted of the doctor a surgeon lieutenant- 
commander who was also commanding officer of the station; 
his wife and child; a nursing sister; and the chaplain. All of 
these had arrived with the advance-party. They made up the 
quarter-deck society and lived a life as remote from ours as from 
that of the islanders. 'Doc,' we gathered, acted not only as 
doctor to all on the island but also as magistrate and general 
advisor to the villagers; they, it seemed, regarded him as the 



direct representative of the king, and all his goodwill could not 
diminish their respectful awe. The position of the padre was 
even more difficult. Previous ministers had all been civilians 
supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. 
They had lived for relatively long periods on the island alone 
with the islanders and had mixed with them freely. Our padre 
had the virtually impossible task of combining the role of village 
pastor with that of naval officer and chaplain. 

The second community at 'the station' was composed of 
N.C.O.S two petty officers, a leading hand, and a storekeeper. 
Aligned with them were the 'met.' staff a sergeant and two 
corporals of the South African Air Force. The sergeant was 
actually an Englishman by birth, Allan Crawford, who had 
previously visited Tristan as surveyor with the Norwegian 
scientific expedition in 1937. Of all our company he was the 
one who knew most about the island. 

In the long 'bunkhouse' known as the Single Men's Quarters 
though some of the occupants had wives far away in England 
lived the rest of us, forming the third community. There were 
nine operators: Ginger, Jock, Cyril, Charlie, Johnny, Ernie, 
Fred, Nick, and myself. We were the most junior elements, in 
every sense, of the station's complement: our average age was 
about twenty. There was also 'Old' Jock, the stoker; and there 
was Bill, the cook. A temporary fourth community, closely 
associated with ours, was that of the 'Springboks,' the party of 
South African engineers who had constructed the station. They 
would soon be returning to Cape Town. 

Such were the disparate elements of our outpost on Tristan. 
The purpose of it was in the wireless station, from which we 
passed weather reports and other more important radio traffic 
to the naval base at Simonstown. 

We had our hours on duty and hours off duty, organized on the 
system of ship's watches; there were always some operators 
listening or transmitting day and night. We had a limited 
amount of other routine work at the station, cleaning quarters 
and maintaining equipment. We had very little restrictive 




discipline and no need for any. Our rig-of-the-day consisted of 
sea-boots, jerseys, woollen caps, sheepskin coats, and whatever 
else was warmest and most comfortable ; beards were grown by 
myself and several of the other ratings. 

To all appearances we led a life unrelated to naval custom 
except in the handling of radio signals. Clustered together, the 
quarters, mess, engine-room, store, receiving and transmitting 
rooms, and the meteorological station formed a second and smaller 
settlement slightly west of that of the islanders, but still remote 
from it. Here, in this little world of our own, we passed 
through a series of friendships, enmities, and alliances until we 
arrived at that state of mutual tolerance and acceptance which 
was to be the bond of our confederacy against loneliness in the 
months ahead. 

Arrived at this state, we were ready to learn about the villagers 
and the world they lived in. Contact was difficult. The men 
we met occasionally on the paths about the settlement were polite, 
almost excessively so, ready like children with their 'Good 
mawnin', Sah.' Now and then we exchanged a few words with 
them, but they remained shy and conversation was strained. The 
older people seemed friendly enough, but the younger ones, 
especially the women, were too timid to permit any acquaintance. 
The moment anyone of our party was seen approaching, the girls 
fled to the shelter of the nearest cottage ; and as we were still 
hesitant about intruding uninvited over the doorsteps we had to 
consider ourselves lucky on rare occasions to surprise one of the 
women into a flustered response to a greeting across a garden wall. 

From the South Africans and from our own observation, as we 
roamed in our off-duty periods, we learned more about the 
village. It was named Edinburgh Settlement, after the Victorian 
Duke of Edinburgh, who had visited it in 1867 during the royal 
cruise of H.M.S. Galatea. It consisted of thirty-five tiny cottages, 
rather like those of Hebridean crofters, built of rough-hewn stone 
which the islanders quarried from the mountainside. These 
were constructed low, to withstand the gales that were said to be 


a feature of the local climate . The roofs were disproportionately 
high and steep, thatched with tussock-grass or flax, their ridges 
sealed with turf sods. The few windows contained glass that, we 
learned, had been cherished by succeeding generations, being 
almost irreplaceable since captains no longer regarded barter as a 
normal form of trade. 

Most of the cottages had gardens and some of the gardens even 
had flowers pale marigolds and a few wild-looking roses just 
budding. But these gardens were the exceptions : the typical one 
was merely an enclosure within a dry-stone wall, with an opening 
left as a gateway but hardly ever boasting a gate. It contained a 
yard of tramped earth and a bed either of the tall Australian flax 
or of the even taller tussock-grass. This tussock was grown for 
thatching. Formerly, we were told, it had grown wild all over 
the island, but now it had to be transplanted from Nightingale and 
Inaccessible, where it was still abundant. 

Fresh water came to the settlement by two 'watrons' 
presumably a corruption of 'waterings' that rushed gurgling 
down from the mountain to leap over the cliffs into the sea. 
These streams embraced a wide, green common extending in 
front of the village for about a hundred yards to the cliff- top. 
Cottages were not built near the edge of the shelf. The nearest 
had apparently been built by a missionary for himself: it now 
stood in ruins. 

Although we encountered cattle on this common and donkeys 
among the cottages, we met remarkably few people. Sometimes 
we saw a man riding one of the donkeys or coming from the 
mountainside with an immense bundle of brushwood on his 
shoulders; but somehow he was nearly always in the distance. 
Such shyness appeared almost furtive, as if there were some local 
secret that had to be kept from us. 

Nevertheless in the end it was by the islanders that the 
approach to friendship was made. It came in the person of old 
Bob Glass a direct descendant of the original settler who 
presented himself one morning, unheralded, outside our 
quarters. We emerged from breakfast and there he was 


standing stiffly, supported on a stick that he held tensely a little 
way in front of himself and gazing ahead with the fixed stare of an 
old man. He was tall and crooked and thin, like a bent bean- 
stick. With his long hair and in his odd array of ill-fitting gar- 
ments he looked like a guy or a scarecrow that someone had set 
down outside our door during the night. Yet he had obviously 
put on his best clothes in honour of the visit. Folded neatly 
across his chest under his jacket was a frayed white silk scarf, 
secured just below the throat with a large gilt pin. Prominent 
above his breast-pocket and displayed for our inspection at the 
earliest opportunity were three medals, inscribed 'Transvaal/ 
'Cape Colony/ and 'Orange River Colony/ Of these the old 
man was inordinately proud, as visible proof that he had for a 
brief period in his life experienced the 'houtside warlV 

He spoke in a cracked drawl, telling us his life-story before we 
had even mentioned the weather. As a young man, it appeared, 
he had left the island to serve in a whaling ship and had settled 
subsequently in South Africa. His recollections struck an in- 
congruous note. He had made more than one visit to England 
and even spoke with bizarre affection of 'the old " Empire " at 
Liverpool.' In the Boer War he had, by his own account, been 
personally responsible for at least one British victory. He related 
with great amusement to himself how, just after that war, he had 
met an Afrikaner friend of his named Pieter and had discovered 
in conversation that they had both taken part in a certain engage- 
ment, but on opposing sides. 'I tell 'im/ chuckled the old 
islander, 'if I'd know 'e was theer I sure I would 'ad a pot at 'im/ 

Eventually out of his simplicity emerged the true reason for 
Bob's visit. He had come to ask that, if *we-alP had any 
washing to be done, we would let his wife Charlotte do some of 
it. This, we sensed, was not merely an offer of generosity but a 
move towards some contract. We gave a non-committal reply 
and he thanked us with dignity. His name, he informed us 
magnificently, was Robert Franklin Glass, but he conceded by 
way of anti-climax: 'Everybawdy jest call me Bawb' which he 
pronounced with a comically elongated vowel. He assured us, 


earnestly and somewhat unnecessarily, that all the other villagers 
knew him and could point out to us his cottage. We should be 
welcome there at any time. He left us with a hearty laugh at his 
own little joke designed, of course, to remind us what a man of 
the 'warl" he was that we should not forget his name if we 
thought of him every time we had a glass of beer in our hands. 
He didn't mention where, on an island that had no alcohol, we 
were likely to have the experience. 

This invitation by Bob Glass was the first that we received to an 
island home. Others soon followed, showing that hospitality 
had been waiting only on temerity. The approach was usually 
made by a husband or son, with a request from wife or mother for 
the privilege of washing for us ; but it was invariably accompanied 
by an invitation to the house. We divided our contracts among 
several families, so that each of us became assured of the services 
of a private laundry. No reference was made to payment ; and as 
there was then no currency on the island we were left wondering 
how to repay these services. But not indefinitely: when they 
came to know us better, the island women found a host of ways of 
exacting their reward. As their shyness waned their demands 
waxed. Almost anything that we were able to supply from our 
store and many things that we could not they were in need of: 
tea and sugar for the housewives, tobacco for the men, sweets for 
the children, and a quite impossible flow of presents for the 
grown-up daughters. However, it was many weeks before that 
stage of intimacy was reached. 


Dance of Welcome 

OUR FIRST opportunity of seeing the islanders en masse since they 
had gathered on the heach at our arrival came after we had been 
several weeks at the settlement. A village dance was held partly 
to welcome us and partly as a farewell to the South African 
soldiers, who, now that their work of preparation and installation 
was done, would be going home by the first available ship. 

We were told by these men, who had been some months on the 
island, that dances were events of great local importance and 
almost the only form of communal entertainment. Preparations 
in the form of dressmaking and sock-knitting would occupy the 
women for weeks beforehand. The younger women especially 
placed as much store by their appearance on these occasions as 
any English girl at her first ball. By the older people, who came 
rather to watch than dance, tea-drinking was considered an 
essential part of the festivity. No other drink was available ; and 
since the tea plant which had once been plentiful on the island 
was now almost extinct tea itself had become a valuable luxury. 
It had to be bartered from ships, which visited Tristan rarely now, 



and was often hoarded until an incident of sufficient local 
importance justified the holding of a 'dawnce.' Even in their 
pleasures, it seemed, the islanders were obliged to practise an 
austere economy. 

At this, our first island dance, the stock of tea was supple- 
mented from our own stores and provided even the oldest 
inhabitants with an inducement for attending. Most of them 
were still strangers to us. However, Bob Glass was present to 
wave his stick in familiar greeting. The ceremony itself turned 
out to be very different from our expectations. If it had been a 
colonial governor's inaugural assembly it could not have been 
more formal. The villagers arrived at the hall in little family 
groups, greeting one another more like strangers than intimate 
neighbours. The unmarried women were carefully chaperoned. 

All the girls wore their best dresses, with their brightest sashes 
and ribbons; coloured kerchiefs, knotted loosely under their 
chins, formed their head-coverings. These they kept on inside 
the hall, though some allowed them to fall back, revealing glossy, 
dark hair, which they wore combed sleekly across the brow and 
coiled at the nape of the neck. White woollen stockings were 
the uniform for men and women. The men wore theirs outside 
their trouser-legs, to show the rings of coloured wool knitted in 
the tops ; the more dapper paraded in white duck trousers which 
they had acquired from sailors and treasured for just such 
occasions. White was the fashionable colour on Tristan, and 
white trousers tacked into white stockings with coloured worsted 
tops were obviously thought very elegant. A few of the 
islanders possessed boots or shoes, but most of them wore the 
familiar oxhide moccasins. 

Behaviour was rigid and restrained. The women ranged them- 
selves around the walls, securing whatever seating accommoda- 
tion was to be had. The men stood awkwardly in groups in the 
middle of the floor, talking and laughing with noisy embarrass- 
ment. Their wives were more self-possessed, sitting primly 
and quietly, many with children in their arms or clinging to 
their long, full skirts. The young, unmarried girls attached 


themselves closely to their mothers or other matronly relatives. 
Only the oldest men were expected to sit with the women. 

At length the music struck up. There were two accom- 
panists for the dancing: an accordion-player, Alfred Green, and a 
fiddler, a merry-faced, monkey-like old man of St Helena stock, 
called Andrew Swain. It was unfortunate that, although the 
two could play only the same tunes, they could not play them in 
harmony ; so that dances had to be performed alternately to the 
asthmatic wheezing of Alfred's accordion and the hilarious 
screeching of Andrew's fiddle. Often we had to listen to con- 
current rival interpretations of the same piece. 

The dances were all of the species of barn dance, simple, 
unvarying patterns of jigging, shuffling, and stamping. At times 
they became alarmingly, though solemnly boisterous. Many of 
the tunes had been imported from South Africa well-known 
Afrikaans choruses such as 'Sarie Marais/ 'Vat you Goed/'and 
'Suikerbossie' ; others were old English favourites, such as 'Little 
Brown Jug/ 'Sweet Lovely Nancy,' and 'Annie Rooney/ which 
had become 'island tunes' by the accumulated distortions of both 
words and air that made them almost unrecognizable. Although 
to our eyes the steps seemed to be all the same, we were assured 
that there were many different ones. Some were waltzes, some 
were foxtrots. Others resembled sailors* hornpipes, Irish jigs, 
or Scots reels. They had such names as ( Heel and Toe Polka/ 
'Hook Legs/ 'Black Tom/ 'Donkey Dance/ and 'Break 'er 
Down Dance/ At one stage in the evening it was announced 
that we were about to have a 'short tea. ' This we took to mean 
an interval given over to tea-drinking. But not at all: the phrase 
appeared to be a corruption of 'schottische/ 

The method of extracting a partner from the compressed row 
of women along the side of the room was rather like tearing a rose 
from a bramble hedge. A young man, selecting what he thought 
an accessible point in the hedge, would advance with unsmiling 
countenance as soon as the music started and, saying nothing, with 
averted eyes, would seize one of the wrists lying limply for that 
purpose in laps and pull its owner to her feet. The process was 


so arbitrary that we wondered how often a man found himself 
actually in possession of the partner he had meant to pick. 
Perhaps he didn't care. With every appearance of unconcern, 
having secured a girl, he proceeded to stomp with her round the 
floor, gyrating continually in the direction of the mob. 

The men danced with a great deal of energy, making as much 
noise as possible but showing no visible signs of enjoyment. The 
women were very prim and punctilious, almost as if resentful of 
being torn from their thicket; yet it was what they had come for. 
Held almost at arm's length, they stared at their partners with 
blank, serious faces that seemed to profess a complete ignorance 
of the amazing antics of their feet below the swirling skirts. 

Custom forbade conversation between dancers. This ensured 
the proper degree of impersonality. The precaution was hardly 
necessary, since the noise generated by the regular thump and 
shuffle of moccasined feet and the occasional scrape of heavy boots 
was sufficient to drown all speech -as well as, perhaps mercifully, 
the thin squeaking of the fiddle. Each dance ended, finally and 
irrevocably, with two emphatic stamps. In the ensuing silence, 
while the dust settled and the boards stopped their trembling, the 
men laughed shakily between gasps and the women retired to 
their- seats to wipe their shining faces with their kerchiefs. In 
this din and bustle it seemed incongruous to see a young mother 
bare her breast and suckle her baby with peaceful absorption 
between dances. 

Among the girls one or two were noticeable for the regularity 
and softness of their features. Most of them had dark hair and 
eyes, though their skins were often pale and clear; one or two 
were fair-haired with blue eyes, and I noticed a number of 
children with the same colouring. 

My attention focused on one dark-haired, gipsy-like girl of 
about eighteen, at which age the women of Tristan were often 
married and looked mature, even matronly. Her complexion 
was inclined to duskiness, but clear and fresh. Her face was 
rounded, with russet cheeks like a ripe apple and very full, red 
lips. Her features looked sensual and almost heavy in profile. 


In spite of a shyness that was due, no doubt, to the public 
occasion, her eyes sparkled with natural vivacity. The round- 
ness and fullness of her figure were probably exaggerated by the 
number of her billowing skirts gathered in at the waist by a red, 
silken sash. Her outer dress was white, accentuating by contrast 
the warm colouring of her skin and the dark splendour of her hair. 
Her gaily patterned head-cover had slipped back, and in the 
activity of the dance a few stray curls had escaped from the tight 
bun of hair at the back of her neck. From one of the advance- 
party I learned that the girl's name was Emily. 

The concluding and most remarkable item of the evening's 
entertainment was called a Pillow Dance. All the people present 
made a single row round the walls of the room. Within the 
rectangle so formed an islander holding a pillow in his arms 
danced slowly round the floor until he found a woman whom he 
favoured. He dropped the' pillow to the floor in front of her 
and the pair knelt on it, facing each other, and demurely kissed. 
It was then the woman's turn to dance with the pillow, the first 
man following her, until she found another partner to her taste. 
The business was repeated until there was a long queue following 
the pillow. 

The performance proceeded solemnly enough for a while but 
then became a hopeless muddle, owing mainly to the fact that old 
Andrew the fiddler, in his desire to watch the progress of the 
pillow, forgot that he was required to provide music for the 
dancers. Moreover most of the girls were too shy to play the 
game properly: once placed in possession of the pillow, their only 
impulse seemed to be to get rid of it as quickly as possible ; after a 
few faltering steps they invariably dropped it before the nearest 
male relative. The young men made no pretence at all of 
dancing with the pillow: as soon as one found himself in posses- 
sion of it he set off on a lumbering tour of the room, often going 
round and round until all curiosity about his choice of a girl had 
sagged into boredom with his apparent inability to make one. 
When at last he did throw the pillow down he invariably remained 
beside it with a stupid grin on his face, while the partner he had 


chosen covered her blushing cheeks with both hands and all the 
other women shrieked with laughter at what they evidently con- 
sidered her misfortune. 

The kiss, when it eventually took place, was never more than 
the slightest contact of the lips ; and it soon became clear that the 
pillow itself was the trophy for which the youths ungallantly 

Among the women and older people interest in the game 
lapsed, and many of them began to make preparations for 
departure, gathering up their children, reknotting headker- 
chiefs. At length, at the far end of the room a friendly tussle 
broke out between two young men for the possession of the pillow ; 
and while many of the villagers were already leaving the hall 
the victor was seen trundling round the room on his own 
with the pillow tucked under his arm, for all the world as if he 
were looking for a place to sleep. 

In this ridiculous state of confusion it seemed to be generally 
understood, with no announcement to the effect, that the 
evening's entertainment had reached its appointed end. The 
dancers began to make their way home through the darkened 
village, with boys carrying naked firebrands, which flared and 
smoked in the wind, giving to the scene just that touch of festive 
brilliance that had been lacking from the dance itself. 


On the Shelf 

ON TRISTAN there are two directions: up the mountain and down 
to the sea. Such is life on a shelf. Two of our company climbed 
the mountainside as far as a promontory from which, they found,, 
they could go no farther, up or down. There they perched for 
an hour and shouted, until their plight was noticed and some 
islanders went up and brought them down. After that we took 
our exercise in off-duty periods about the settlement and on the 
beaches below. 

For our walks about the village we had a network of paths to 
choose from. They were like a gigantic cobweb laid on the 
ground, its meshes broken or distorted by projecting roofs, walls, 
and knobs of rock. Some paths led to doorways ; others to the 
openings of sheep-pens; some skirted playfully round garden 
walls to meet others head-on, or raced one another to empty 
gateways. And all these openings stared with forlorn fixity at 
the horizon. The Tristan islander lives with his back to the 
mountain and his face to the sea. The realization of this con- 
firmed our sense of being stranded on a ledge. 

Two tracks, wider and more deeply defined than the footpaths,, 
led from the village to the beaches. These were the 'roads/ 
The Upper Road led to Big Beach, the Lower Road to Little 



Beach. A third road wandered westward from the settlement to 
the Potato Patches, which lay just 'round the corner' of the 
mountain, at the far end of the shelf. The total length of this 
habitable ledge was nine miles and at no point was the width more 
than one mile. Its narrowness drove our feet continually to- 
wards the beach, as if in an effort to escape. 

Once, on the road to Big Beach, Jock and I met a young islander 
leading a bullock-cart. The cart, on two solid wheels of wood, 
still showing the bite of the axe, seemed absurdly small ; and it 
contained nothing more interesting than a few large stones. The 
pair of slow-treading bullocks appeared disproportionately huge. 
The 'road' was so deeply rutted that one wheel was lumbering 
along a foot higher than the other, while the cart on its wooden 
axle lurched and creaked at an amazing angle. Youth and oxen 
moved with the same patient, plodding indifference. But the 
moment they saw us, all three stopped, as if by a common 
impulse, to stare with mingled embarrassment and suspicion. 
From the young man we extracted a grudging 'Mawnin', Sah. 5 

'What are you doing?' asked Jock. 

'Drawin' stone/ he replied with unassailable accuracy. 

4 What are you going to use that for?' 

'Mendin' wall.' 

Two words at a time seemed to be all he could spare. Even 
that number failed him when I asked where he got the stone. 
The most he could manage was to point vaguely at the mountain- 
side above Big Beach. Yet, as soon as he passed on towards the 
beach, we heard him 'ho-ho-ho-ing' his oxen with commanding 
urgency to the village. 

On the beach there was fascination in the beat and growl of the 
surf, the rattle of shifting pebbles, and the strange, acrid smell of 
the giant kelp-weed. There was also the chance of conversation 
with a little band of fisher-boys who were less shy than the young 
men. The two beaches were separated by a knoll, where an 
ancient ship's cannon stood on futile guard, like a toothless 
watch-dog, beside a flagpole. Beneath this headland a ridge of 
boulders called Julia Reef ran out to sea, sloping under the 


surface like a sunken breakwater, to lurk in wait for incautious 
landing-parties. Here, among the rocks clad with kelp and 
laver-weed, the tide left pools, in which the children fished. 

Scrambling over vast, crannied stones, wading bare-legged with 
feet hardened to the cut of pebbles, they lifted up the life- 
crawling tangles of kelp in search of crayfish. Sometimes they 
found instead a villainous-looking cuttle-fish. One impudent, 
four-year-old urchin the smallest of that band of diminutive 
beachcombers related, in a sharp, treble voice, while his black 
eyes shone like polished stones, how he had swum in one of these 
pools and been clutched round the waist by the tentacles of a 
'catfish/ as he called it, striving to pull him under. 

'Tell you what/ he piped, f l wrostle 'at boy all right. 'E 
wanna drag me down, but I drag 'im ashore instead an* give 'im 
waffa! I chop 'is legs off one by one with my old fish-knife till 'elet 
go an 5 fall on the rock. Then I tear 'im up an' use 'im for bait. ' 

The boy's voice went hard with triumph, and his shrill laugh 
cut the air like a whip -lash: 

*Ha-ah, take more'n a catfish to get this fella! ' 

On another occasion I found the same gang of children splashing 
barefooted through the rock-pools as they stoned to death a 
penguin that had marooned itself high on the beach. The bird 
was nearly helpless out of the water, falling face down over every 
large pebble, lurching awkwardly to its feet again, agitating its 
useless flippers and tripping over strips of seaweed in its impotent 
anxiety to reach the sea's edge, where it would be gone like a 
flash of a shark's fin. 

Every time it stumbled erect, the boys would bowl it over with 
hard-flung pebbles, their voices chorusing a single, sharp yell of 
exultation. Their motive was not cruelty, but amusement: they 
stared in silent wonder when I suggested that the penguin had 
feelings for pain as they had. Their intention was not to hurt it 
the idea was beyond them but merely to knock it over, as if 
it were a tin can on a fence that obligingly set itself up again each 
time it was toppled down. Their cries were as wild and inhuman 
as those of the ravenous, hook-billed sea-birds. 


Little Beach, the boys' favourite hunting-ground, was a steep 
strip of shingle, where the tide often threshed right up under the 
cliffs. It differed completely in character from Big Beach on the 
other side of the headland. This was an expanse of black sand, 
ribbed by the tide and sparkling with tiny gems of grit. There 
were no pebbles here, and only a few boulders like blackened 
teeth among the white froth of the surf. It was not really a big 
beach, but it seemed long Plough as I walked along it ; the ends 
stretched out before and behind me like the tails of a black scarf. 
On one side the mountain advanced threateningly, driving me 
towards the long-reaching arms of the surf, which leapt over the 
boulders on the other side of nie and rushed across the sand, 
growling as it fell back defeated. 

At the far end of Big Beach was a ridge called by the islanders 
Pigbite. From its top I looked down on a wild glen of tree-fern, 
bunch-grass, and scrub, interspersed with naked outcrops of stone, 
like the miniature mountains of a rock-garden. It was a barren 
reward to have trudged the beach for ; but two tiny lagoons, like 
upturned eyes, stared blandly at the sky. Their blueness was as 
refreshing as liquid. They seemed too beautiful to be anything 
but a mirage; and then, from among the bushes beside them, 
appeared a bent old woman, assisted by two urchins to load sticks 
into bags on a donkey. The boys kept leaving their work and 
chasing each other in play. The donkey stood like a figure carved 
in wood, with one knee bent and one ear drooped, the bags slung 
panier-wise across the ridgy hump of its back. The old woman's 
voice creaked in the distance, like a door on rusty hinges, as she 
called the boys to gather more wood. 

The boys, however, had seen me, and curiosity drew them to 
the ridge. They ran barefooted among the rocks and bushes 
until they were a few yards from me. Then they stopped. It 
was several minutes before they came edging shyly round a 
boulder into my presence. The taller boy appeared ready to run 
away at the slightest alarm. The smaller one I recognized his 
round, mischievous face and bright eyes held his ground ; but 
even this intrepid wrestler with catfish and stoner of penguins 


seemed to lack some of his boldness now that he was confronted 
almost alone by one of the * strangers.' 

I asked their names. They giggled. After a minute the little 
one pointed at the other and said: 

"At's Dondil.' 

Donald, I presumed. 

'And what's your name?' 


Of that I could make Piers or Pearce ; I preferred the former. 

The boys had the look of brothers, the younger one about four 
or five years old, the other about seven. The little one was 
obviously the brighter. His piping voice now volunteered 
further information. Pointing to the old woman, he announced: 

At's Grannie Toodie.' 

' What about the donkey ? ' I asked . * Has he go t a name ? ' 

They stared, glanced at each other and bubbled into shrill 
laughter. With withering scorn, between shrieks, Piers cried: 
' 'At ain't a dawnkey ! ' At's a jenny! ' 

At last, overcoming his amusement, he added with more polite- 
ness: * 'At's Black Tippy. She belong to ow sister Hemly.' 

I would have asked more about Emily was she the same Emily 
as had drawn my attention at the dance? but the boys were 
scampering away among the rocks, laughing again in sharp, treble 
voices at the ignorance of outsiders who didn't know a * jenny' 
from a 'jack' donkey. 

Beyond Pigbite the mountain wall shouldered its way out to 
sea again, closing the end of the shelf. This immurement only 
emphasized our isolation on Tristan. Shut out from the rest of 
the world, we were shut in even on the island. For months we 
should be able to look at nothing but the mountain in one 
direction and the sea in the other. 

Presently I saw the little procession of 'jenny, ' old woman, and 
rascally grandchildren making its way slowly back along the beach. 
I followed their footsteps home to the village; for, whether we 
liked it or not, that tiny settlement must be 'home' for us, as for 
the islanders, so long as the Navy kept us on that narrow shelf. 


Alone with the Past 

ON THE rare occasions when, in those early days of November, 
the siin shone on Tristan, the wind was roused to a gale of anger. 
It whipped the sea to a roaring, mad-capped frenzy, while the sun 
turned the crests to a dazzling white. Into the bay below Herald 
Point on the exposed tip of which a tiny hut had been perched 
at the Navy's instructions, far removed even from the rest of the 
station long, curving rollers raced to the shore. Inside the hut 
a solitary operator sat with crackling ear-phones clamped to his 
temples; outside the wind whistled and hooted and charged 
against the door like some demented creature pounding for entry. 
Aerial masts quivered and strained at their bases and the wires 
whined in a shrill, sad key. 

For long periods the wind kept off the rain that hung in heavy 
clouds. Over the sea lay a bright haze, pierced by a few gold 
rays, and from indoors the windows appeared misted with a fine 
vapour, which was neither rain nor spray rather as if the wind by 
sheer force had beaten the moisture out of the atmosphere. 

Then came a squall. Without warning the wind drove a 


spatter of drops against the hut. The sun darkened and tl 
heavy, mournful rain-clouds seemed to collapse over the islan 
Water streamed down the window-panes and splashed on tl 
wooden steps outside. The onset lasted only a few minute 
Then the squall could be seen moving away across the grey-haze 
wave-whipped expanse to the east. Sunshine, struggli] 
through, created a luminous arc of rainbow. Timid rays glir 
mered through the dripping panes, like laughter emergii 
through tears. 

Such was the weather persisting throughout the first month 
our stay on the island. At this time our isolation was complet 
by an event which took place on ist December. We i 
ceived our first visitor from the world outside a little trar 
steamer, bound from South America to the Cape. She had be 
diverted from her course by instructions to call at Tristan 
Cunha and pick up the contingent of South African soldie: 
whose work was now finished. 

The ship came upon us out of a morning mist, with a bew 
dered air as if she had experienced difficulty in finding ti 
unfamiliar rock. She anchored off Little Beach, from which t 
islanders promptly launched a boat in the hope of doing soi 
trade. Most of us found an opportunity of going on board i 
the pleasure of seeing a few strange faces and hearing some ne 
from the * outside,' In the afternoon the whole populati 
assembled on the beach for the leave-taking of the soldiers, whc 
acquaintance among the islanders had had time to become clo 
The effusion of kisses and tears from the women amazed us ; 
wondered whether our departure, at a date still distant, woi 
evoke similar demonstrations. We thought it impossible at 1 
time and were more disposed to envy the Springboks th 
prospect of spending Christmas in Cape Town. 

In the weeks following their departure, with our circle of fa 
shrunk still closer about the mess-table, we learned the value 
the weather in making the days on Tristan skip lightly by or d 
like the links of a heavy chain. At last it began to improve. 


the cottage gardens, besides the clumps of tussock-grass, a few 
flowers began to appear, like hopeful sprigs on an old maid's 
bonnet. The wind retained its querulous note and the sibilance 
of the surf accompanied us through our days and nights ; but as 
December advanced the sun became a more daring visitor and the 
squalls more intermittent. 

We still saw little of the islanders. Social activities, we 
realized, were not absent from the life of Edinburgh Settlement, 
but they were more formal and discreet than might have been 
expected in such a small, enclosed society; and, excepting such 
solemnities as the recent dance, they were organized on a family 
basis. So far we had not penetrated that milieu; we could only 
roam in the vicinity, half attracted, half repelled by the dark 
interior that showed occasionally through a cottage doorway. 

Each threshold consisted of a wide, smooth-worn stone sunk 
into the ground. The door was always made in two parts, upper 
and lower, like stable doors in England. The top hatch seemed 
to be kept open in all but the wildest weather. When the sun 
gleamed more often now on the unpainted, weather-beaten 
wood of the lower half-door, the void square above peered at the 
passer-by like a cavernous eye from under the shaggy brows of 
thatch. Sometimes we glimpsed a face in the opening. Some- 
times a child's head peeped over, wide-eyed, between tiny hands 
that gripped the edge of the wood ; but it always dropped out of 
sight as soon as it became aware of being seen. We were still, 
after a month on the island, a source at once of wonder and fear. 

At this stage it seemed to us that of all the living things on 
Tristan human beings were the rarest and most difficult to meet. 
Other creatures were both tamer and more familiar. On the 
grassy common in front of the village waddled little detachments 
of grey-and- white geese, wagging their fluffy tails, paddling pink 
feet or dipping red bills in the 'watron.' In the very centre of 
this green stood a miniature covert of gorse-bushes. Here, in 
the dusty hollows made by their own bodies among the clumps, 
black island pigs rolled in contentment on sunny days while a 
few lean hens pecked the insects from them. . The sheep were 


evidently kept on higher ground at this time of year, though the 
grass near the settlement showed evidence of their nibbling and 
the breeze carried their bleating from the mountainside. Only a 
few cows were to be seen, but there were numerous bullocks, 
used for drawing the carts. Sometimes, when a young bullock 
was being broken in to the yoke, he would be left to wander all 
day with his yoke-fellow, their necks imprisoned together in the 
heavy wooden collar. If encountered in this fashion, the bullocks 
were timid; but unencumbered they could be dangerous, es- 
pecially at night, when they would charge at anyone carrying a 

The commonest animals were donkeys, small, sleepy-eyed, 
shaggy, grey or brown. They roamed among the cottages, 
through gateways and into gardens with a casual, proprietary 
air and far more self-possession than the people. On a narrow 
footpath I have often stood aside for one to pass and received not 
so much as the droop of an ear in notice of my existence. At 
night, going out to the hut on the Point, carrying no torch for 
fear of the charging bullocks, I have more than once fallen head- 
long over a donkey sleeping in my path, as immovable as a 
boulder. Even long-dead ones were a familiar sight, startling 
enough in broad daylight, gruesome at dusk. In silent, green 
hollows, among shadowy rocks, in the bottoms of gulches, I have 
been pulled up sharply by the staring eye-sockets, long jaws, and 
grinning teeth of a skull, sometimes a complete skeleton, its 
cage of ribs bleached white, the grass growing up through it as it 
lay like a resting spectre. There were so many long-nosed asses' 
skulls, so many homed skulls of cattle and small-boned sheep's 
heads littering the plateau that we walked about half in fear of 
coming on the unburied remains of human castaways until one 
day, along with Ginger, Jock, and Charlie, I was shown the 
islanders' cemetery. 

It was just another enclosure with a tumbledown wall of stones, 
distinguished from the neighbouring flax gardens mainly by its 
greater state of neglect. Beside it ran a deep gully or * gutter, ' in 
the bottom of which flowed Big Watron. We were standing 


here, looking down at the stream, when we saw our acquaintance, 
old Bob Glass, coining down beside it, complete with hat and 
stick. He greeted us from afar in the tone of a now-familiar 
friend 'Good day, gen'lmen!' and arrived on faltering steps. 

'I see you-all down 'yah by the graveyard, so I come fa* to show 
you grandad's grave/ 

He climbed out of the gully and waved his stick commandingly 
towards an opening in the wall. Like sheep we allowed ourselves 
to be herded into the enclosure, while Bob fussed at our heels, 
holding his stick out like a shepherd's crook. 

Obviously the parish afforded no sexton to trim the grass and 
paid little attention to the places of its dead. Most of the graves 
were unmarked in any way. Here and there was a rough wooden 
cross with a name and date scratched on it. One or two rudi- 
mentary headstones lurched at different angles out of the ground. 
Only one grave, in the far corner, was distinguished by anything 
worthy of being called a memorial. To this grave we were led 
or rather shepherded. In respectful silence we read the 
inscription on the marble tombstone, which had manifestly not 
been made on the island, 






Asleep in Jesus! far from thee 
Thy kindred and their graves may be ; 
But thine is still a blessed sleep, 
From which none ever wakes to weep. 

The sign above the inscription showed that William Glass had 
been a freemason. The stone, Bob said, had been sent out from 
America by relatives living there. The descendant of the 
original founder then pointed out for our amusement where he 


and his brothers had in their boyhood prised the lead out of the 
lettering with their knives, to melt down and make pellets for 
their guns. 

This story set the old islander at first gleefully, then wistfully, 
on a train of reminiscences. It appeared that the young people 
of Tristan, as in every other generation of every other com- 
munity in the world, were 'not what they used to be. . . .' 

The village was hidden from our sight by the nearer prospect of 
tall flax in the adjoining garden. Standing there in the little 
graveyard among the neglected stones, we were as if stranded 
between the mountain and the sea. The old man's voice rustled 
vaguely, becoming confused with the rustle of the distant surf. 
A breeze moved among the flax, rattling the dry stalks together- 
its passage was like a shiver of loneliness. Bob's words, as he 
talked on and on, came to us thinly, with a reed-like sound, lost 
on the wind, as if he were a long way off, in another world, 
among those forgotten figures of his youth. 

He seemed to be talking not to us, nor even to himself, but to 
the wind and the sea and the dreary flax and the crude grave- 
stones that alone with him recalled the names of those dead ones. 

Slowly, like a dreamer awaking, he came back to us out of his 
world of memory, saw us again and recollected his hospitable 
intention of inviting us up to his house for a cup of 'strong drink' 
and to meet his wife, Charlotte. 


Am Exile 9 s Home 

ALONG the grassy lank of the stream in the bottom of the guHly 
we followed Bob Glass in the direction of his cottage. Tie 
promised Introduction to his wife was prefaced with a timely 
warning: 'You-all ain't gotta be skeered of my wife, 'cos she's a 
big woman biggest woman on the island.' There was a ring of 
pride in his voice and perhaps we should have pleased him if we 
had shown signs of fear, 

As we trooped behind the old man through the low doorw&y, 
she rose from a seat a.t the comer of the hearth and advanced to 
the middle of the room, as if prepared for any encounter. 
Without being especially tall, she was certainly *big. * H<er 
voluminous black skirt effectively concealed a wide area of 
cottage floor. Her large, red hands were wiping themselves, 
unhurriedly, in a small white apron at her waist. Her heayy 
bosom was constrained, with difficulty, in a white blouse. 
Meagre, greying hair appeared in a roll in front of a faded green 
kerchief on her head. She held the centre of the floor., as 
Immovable as a rock, and surveyed us sombrely from large, dull 



eyes as we advanced in turn to take her hand and receive a 
mumbled ' 'Ow you do, Sir?' in greeting. Then, the encounter 
over, and no ground yielded, she retired honourably to her coign 
of vantage by the hearth, leaving to her husband the social duties 
of seeing us seated on various boxes and chests about the room. 

With slow, deliberate movements, eloquent of her determina- 
tion not to be flustered or even perceptibly interested by the 
unexpected arrival of strangers, Charlotte filled a pot with water 
from a tall pitcher and placed it on a grid over the fire. Then, 
settling her enormous bulk back on the tiny box which served as 
her seat, she relapsed into stolid silence, looking occasionally at 
us but more frequently at the pot. 

We gazed round at our first cottage interior. The room was 
fairly large and was well kept. The roof, walls, and floor were 
boarded inside, the actual stone of the building visible only in the 
wide, open fire-place. Some attempts at decoration had been 
made. The walls were painted in two colours, the top half 
white, the bottom blue. The paint had presumably been 
acquired from some ship. Coloured pictures cut from an 
ancient magazine had been stuck here and there. The tiny 
recess of the single window had been neatly boarded and cur- 
tained with a rag of butter muslin. A small square table stood 
against the wall near the window and was covered with a faded 
green cloth. The boxes on which we sat were of the same kind 
as sea-chests, painted and covered on top with pieces of fabric 
one of them embroidered unexpectedly with the name *Jane 
Austen.' No doubt this treasure, like many others in the house, 
had been acquired either from a passing ship or from well-wishers 
in England who occasionally sent parcels to the island through a 
missionary society. On the mantelpiece were various oddments, 
including a clock, and some shelves in a corner bore a few antique 
articles of crockery. All these domestic possessions looked old 
and well worn, but everything was clean and neat. 

This room appeared to be the all-purpose living-room. The 
only other apartment in the cottage was a small bedroom, which 
was nothing more than a box-like portion of the main room 


partitioned off by a plank wall in which a tiny square of window 
space, devoid of glass, had been cut to allow light to enter the 
bedroom from the living-room. There were no windows in the 
back wall of the house: the only window letting in light from 
outside was that in the front wall, which had small glass panes in 
it. The inside of the house would have been very dark had not 
the upper half of the main door been left open. It appeared that 
some person slept in the living-room, for along the back wall, 
opposite the window, was a long wooden sofa, covered with dark 
blankets, obviously a bed as well as a couch. It was on top of 
these blankets that old Bob himself had taken his seat as if it 
were a customary one in order to direct our attention with his 
walking-stick to the points of interest in his home. 

He told us that the wood used for lining and furnishing the 
house, as of many other cottages in the village, had been salvaged 
from the sailing-ships wrecked on Tristan in the old days. At 
one time, he admitted, it had even been the custom of the settlers 
to pray in their church for God to send them a ' good 5 shipwreck. 
However, the ministers sent out from England had dissuaded 
them from the practice. As a consequence, Bob seemed to imply, 
the young people of Tristan nowadays had often to wait three or 
four years to get married until the bridegroom had collected 
enough drift-wood to construct the i principals' of his house. 
Since the advent of steamships, wrecks, and even visits, had 
become rare, and this had increased the value of drift-wood. 
Sometimes the derelict bough or trunk of a tree, originating 
from a shore many hundreds of miles away, would be washed up 
on the beach, crusted with barnacles that it had accumulated on 
its sea-passage. This would be rescued and hoarded by the lucky 
finder. Once, Bob said, a trunk of immense size perhaps a 
South American redwood had been washed up and had been 
frugally chopped at by the whole population for a year. 

The old islander sat stiffly erect on the sofa, his hands resting 
on the knob of his stick, which was held between his knees, his 
bright, protuberant eyes swivelling from one face to another as 
he talked. At the corner of the hearth, Charlotte, balancing her 


weight precariously on the small box, said nothing, but divided 
her attention between us and the pot. It was an open question 
which drew the larger share of it. Eventually her grudging 
interest in our presence and remarks so completely usurped it that 
the pot had to remind her of its need by bubbling loudly. That 
was our little triumph ; but the ensuing brew was hers a species 
of thick tea that certainly justified Bob's adjective * strong. ' We 
sipped it with perseverance from mugs that were very thick 
and very big. 

Bob accompanied our sipping with the account of his life in 
the Orange Free State, where he had married his first wife, 
Elizabeth. His three eldest sons had been born in South Africa, 
two more by Elizabeth on the island after he had brought his 
family to his native Tristan. The first of these two was that same 
dark-browed Sidney who had led us up from Big Beach on the day 
of our arrival. Pointing with his wavering stick, Bob drew our 
attention to a large, framed wedding portrait of himself as a 
young man with a huge black moustache and the same prominent, 
ever bright eyes, and his wife in white, demurely downcast under 
a lofty crown of dark hair and a diminutive straw hat. The wife 
had died after the birth of her fourth son there had been some 
daughters too, but Bob was vague and indifferent about the 
number of them- and almost at once he had married the placid 
island-born creature who throughout his narrative had sat 
hunched on her box, staring at us with her large, opaque eyes and 
something of the cud-chewing imperturbability of a cow. 

About the island itself Bob had much to tell us. It was 
apparently not what it used to be. In his youth food had been 
far more plentiful and varied. Of eggs and milk there had never 
been any shortage, and all the women had known how to make 
butter and cheese : now the young women knew nothing. Ships 
had been regular callers then and there had been plenty of ' trade. ' 
In exchange for fresh vegetables warships had given cash, which 
the islanders had spent on board at the dry canteen; whaling 
vessels had paid in clothes and groceries. Now ships hardly ever 


On the subject of whales, Bob told us that he himself had 
started a whaling 'industry 5 on Tristan after his return from 
South Africa. He described with enthusiasm the sport the island 
men had had out in their boats, harpooning the whales. 

'Did you kill many?' we asked. 

'No,' he replied in a tone that seemed to rebuke us for 
irrelevance, 'we never killed none/ 

Once seals had also been numerous on the island. They had 
come ashore there to do their courting, Bob said, and a noisy 
business they made of it. Now they had all left. When asked 
why, he explained, without any sense of responsibility, that the 
islanders had shot so many of them that the others had stopped 

The birds, too, had all migrated to the neighbouring islands, 
Nightingale and Inaccessible, to which the men had to row or sail 
to fetch penguins', petrels', and mollymawks' eggs. Again we 
ventured a question, though by now we knew the answer. 

4 Why don't the birds nest any more on Tristan?' 

'Because the islanders shoot them off.' 

Our host persistently referred to his fellow settlers as a 
people apart from himself, for whose vagaries he felt in no way 

After a pause, he offered us another example of the island's 

'Even the goats iss gone! ' 

Also shot, we supposed. But no! It appeared that one day 
they had all run down a slope of the mountain and hurled them- 
selves over a cliff into the sea. We waited for a further explana- 
tion, but Bob did not seem to think any was required. His 
sorrowful headshake seemed to imply that such happenings were 
natural on Tristan and that when we had lived there longer we 
should not think them strange. 

On this forlorn note he ended his recital of the blessings of his 
island home. For a long time he sat gazing at the floor, and 
Charlotte, as if in sympathy, gazed mournfully into the fire. 
Our presence seemed to have been forgotten, and no one thought 


of anything to say. The silence stretched tauter and tauter until it 
was snapped by the sudden irruption into the room of a young 
man and a dog. They were in the house before we had time to 
perceive their entry, the young man having swung the half-door 
open and stepped well into the middle of the room on his soft 
oxhide soles without noticing our presence. When he did 
become aware of us, he appeared to undergo an abrupt attack of 
paralysis and lockjaw simultaneously. The dog at his heels 
seemed no less aghast at our unfamiliar presence: he stood trans- 
fixed, head and tail down, forgetting even to sniff. It seemed a 
long minute before old Bob roused himself to break this second 

'This 'yah's my youngest boy Wilson/ he announced, and 
then added as if disclaiming all liability in the matter: "E's 
Shawlutt's son/ It was a moment before it became clear to us 
what he was explaining: that this was his son the only child 
by his second wife. 

We greeted Wilson, but he neither spoke nor moved, unless 
it was true as it appeared that both he and the dog leaned 
back a trifle as if from a sharp gust. Then Charlotte's voice, 
heard really for the first time during our visit, jerked him out of 
his trance with a shrill, harsh question: 

'Ain't you got no talk, Wilson?' 

In spite of the harshness of the tone, there was a note of strong, 
proprietary affection in her voice now, and her attention seemed 
fixed at last on an object that fully engaged it. 

Wilson dragged his cap from his head and began to wring it 
mercilessly in his hands while he treated the company to a 
tortured and vapid smile. He was about twenty years old, slim, 
and of a fair height; his vacant appearance was due perhaps more 
to shocked embarrassment than to stupidity. But we had no 
chance of making sure. As quickly as he had entered the house 
he retreated, the dog crowding his heels in an equal anxiety to 
escape from the situation. This departure set a precedent for 
ours. Before leaving, two of us pledged ourselves to Bob's wife 

4-Vm+. i,rA *ir>r>rM-Af*r\ fn 


privilege of washing our clothes. We could either bring them, 
she said, to the cottage or Wilson could come to our quarters 
regularly to fetch them. After his recent display of inarticulacy, 
we rather doubted Wilson's hardihood for such a task. Char- 
lotte, however, seemed to have no doubt at all of his obedience. 
Old Bob accompanied us to the door, hobbling on his stick, 
and even Charlotte hoisted her unwieldy bulk to its feet and 
wished us a 'Good awfternoon' in her drawling island speech. 
Our parting glimpse of the old man, after we had promised to 
return soon, showed him stiffly poised in the dark void of the 
doorway under the frowning thatch of the cottage. There was 
no sign outside of Wilson or his dog, but we had no doubt that 
from some concealed vantage-point the eyes of both watched our 


A Year Begins 

SPRING and Christmas advanced hand in hand. With an 
appropriateness that was, to our northern minds, incongruous, 
the season of new growth coincided with the beginning of a new 
year. Early one morning the sun entered, disguised as a shaft of 
brilliant, restless dust, through the east window of the hut on 
Herald Point; it stretched an arm across the operator's table to 
the chair in which I sat hunched before the receiver, and alighted 
like a gentle tap on my shoulder. I looked up as if a stranger had 

The face of Tristan was being transformed. The flax in the 
gardens was bursting into dark red buds and its sombre leaves had 
a fresh green lustre. The solitary thicket of gorse-bushes on the 
grassy common in front of the village was spurting little flame-like 
jets of yellow blossom. Even the mountain laid aside its shawl 
of cloud to reveal shoulders clad in a new garment of green scrub, 
blazoned with patches of furze. In the growing warmth the 
village opened like a flower. The cottagers emerged from their 
chrysalis, too busy to be shy: men drove ox-carts laden with 



brushwood for the Christmas cooking-fires ; women sat in door- 
ways carding wool ; boys carried home the first early potatoes ; 
girls clustered in chattering groups, their knitting-needles flying 
as their tongues wagged. 

Our acquaintance began slowly to widen, largely through our 
contacts with old Bob Glass and with Kenneth Rogers, who acted 
as mess-boy and assistant cook at the station. Working among 
us daily, Kenneth had lost all shyness in our presence and had 
acquired many of our ways and even our expressions, so that he 
hardly seemed to us an islander. At twenty he was young 
enough to be adaptable. He was full of curiosity about our 
world and its strange machines ; he soon learned to hold his own 
in the humorous back-chat at meal-times, and he soon mastered 
the methods of cooking and baking in our galley, so different from 
those in an island kitchen. He was cheerful, fresh-coloured, 
well built, with a strong, resonant voice and intelligent, well- 
shaped features. 

As Bob Glass was our link with the older generation, Kenneth 
was our sponsor among the young people. He had soon intro- 
duced most of us to his family. The home was dominated by his 
mother, Agnes Rogers, a small but energetic person with bright 
eyes, a quick manner of speaking, a ready smile, and a face as 
wrinkled and red-cheeked as a ripe crab-apple. She was not a 
native of Tristan, but an Irishwoman the sister of Bob Glass's 
first wife, Elizabeth. She had come to the island at the same 
time as her sister, had married first a Joe Glass, who had died, and 
then William Rogers, who had become blind. The whole 
management of the household had fallen on her slight shoulders. 
She had brought up a family of three children by her first husband 
and five by her second, and had managed to provide them all with 
a rudimentary education beyond that of most of the other 
islanders. Agnes was a Roman Catholic and had taught her 
children in the same faith, conducting services in her cottage, so 
that the Rogers family formed yet another separate little com- 
munity within the colony of Tristan. 

The cottage was not always clean or tidy, but it offered an 


atmosphere of unstrained friendliness and welcome. We met 
Kenneth's brothers, 'Bunty' and Rudolph, who were twins, and 
his two unmarried sisters, Asturias Ann, as pretty as she was 
plump, and Marie, a gay tomboy of fifteen. Among them Ken 
was called by a local nickname, 'Mecca/ 

Often in the evenings the house would echo with merriment 
far removed from the sombre conduct which had seemed to us to 
characterize the islanders. Through it all, blind William sat in 
his chair, his gaze fixed in front of him in a listening stare, joining 
in with a loud laugh at every joke. Agnes was at once sufficient 
of an islander and sufficient of an outsider to provide a shrewd, 
half-ironic commentary on the life of the settlement. Sometimes 
she acted for us almost as an interpreter. 

With these livelier contacts during our off- watch periods and 
the daily improving weather, our time of exile began to pass 
pleasantly enough. Almost before we realized it, Christmas 
was upon us; to our English imaginations it seemed almost a 
blasphemy that it should arrive with the season of shooting grass, 
fresh buds, and sunshine. 

On Christmas Eve a party was held at the station, 'Doc/ 
padre, sister, and the others of the 'quarter-deck* joining with us 
in nostalgic imitation of parties at home. Perhaps because of the 
warmth, the sun in the evening, the absence of a coal-fire, of 
holly, mistletoe, and fir boughs, the atmosphere was all wrong. 
Presents from the store were distributed by the padre masquer- 
ading behind a cotton-wool beard ; party games were played in 
the recreation space of the mess, sobriety putting on a false 
heartiness that was worse than drunkenness ; for one evening we 
tried, unconvincingly, to imagine ourselves in England, shutting 
out consciousness of the bleak island outside the windows. 
Possibly we should have done better to go into the village. How 
Christmas Eve was being celebrated there we did not know; 
certainly the children would not be hanging up their stockings in 
expectation of presents . 

On Christmas morning several of us attended service in the 
village. The little church of Saint Mary-the- Virgin stood in the 


very centre of the village. It was a low, long-shaped building, 
stone-walled and with a dry-stone enclosure, just like another 
cottage; but it was distinguished from its shock-headed neigh- 
bours by a corrugated iron roof, at one end of which was erected 
a little white-painted wooden cross and at the other the rescued 
ship's bell of the wrecked Mabel Clark. 

The islanders sat in silent, close-packed rows, on benches 
men on one side of the aisle, women and children on the other. 
There was something child-like in the rapt attention of their faces 
as they listened to the story of the birth of Christ. Near the 
altar was a model, built in a wooden box by the padre, showing 
the inside of the stable, complete with manger, tiny doll Jesus, 
cardboard cut-out figures of Mary, Joseph, and cattle. It was 
illuminated by a small, concealed electric torch bulb, which 
turned the miniature interior into a magical, glowing world of its 
own. It had been designed mainly to interest and instruct the 
children, for whom the minister provided Sunday-school; but 
throughout the sermon it drew the wondering gaze of the men 
and women. Even during the carol-singing, having no hymn- 
books to read and only the padre's voice to follow, they could 
keep their eyes and imaginations turned towards that window-like 
glimpse of the unreal. 

During the afternoon a party was given at the station for the 
village children, who came with their mothers. Presents of 
sweets were received with wide-eyed, if solemn, delight. The 
children's shyness made it hard to organize games, but as soon as 
the accordionist struck up familiar tunes boys and girls, even the 
youngest, stood up in pairs to dance the local steps in earnest 
imitation of their elders. 

In the evening, in the same room, we were hosts to the grown- 
ups at another Mawnce.' Once again there was the screech of 
Andrew Swain's 'woileen' and the drone of Alfred Green's 
melodeon; the wooden floor resounded to the rhythmical 
drumming of moccasined and booted feet. Faces shone with 
sweat, for the night was as warm as an English midsummer's eve. 

From Kenneth we learned more of the customs of dance nights. 

i. Hauling roughly trimmed stone into position on the gable top. 

2. The 'gable-ends' are completed first, and then the walls. 


3. 'Principals' and rafters are made of drift-wood and salvage from packing 
cases. (Rudolph ' Twin ' Rogers) 

roof is thatched with New Zealand flax and the ridge sealed with turf. 


As in church, it was not considered proper for the men to sit 
with the women. A husband, having brought his wife to the 
hall, left her to find her own seat while he mingled with the other 
self-conscious males in the middle of the room. Still less pardon- 
able would it have been for a young man to place himself beside 
one of the unmarried girls or hold open conversation with her. 
Only after long courtship and recognized acceptance was he 
permitted to escort her to and from the hall. 

We were surprised by Ken's assurance that it was on these 
dance nights that many of the island love-affairs began. The 
segregation was so strict and the dancing itself so rugged that there 
appeared no opportunity for intimacies. Custom, however, had 
evolved an explicit though unformulated code for the affections. 
Selection of partners, as Kenneth explained, was by no means as 
haphazard as it looked. If a girl 'stood up' for the first dance 
with any young man other than her own brother or cousin, she 
was openly acknowledging him as an admirer ; great would have 
been the scandal if a wife had danced that number with any man 
but her husband. During subsequent dances, if an unmarried 
man chose the same partner on three occasions, he was declaring 
for all to see, including her parents his wish to 'come 
a-co't'n'.' 'Annie Rooney' was the 'sweethearts' dawnce' and 
carried a special significance. 

We began to appreciate how heavily charged with under- 
currents was the atmosphere in our mess-room on this occasion. 
'You-all gotta watch out,' as Kenneth warned, 'else you come 
'yah fa' to dawnce an' you go 'way fa' to git married.' 

Among the young women present I again observed Emily, the 
girl I had noticed at the previous dance. She was obviously in 
demand, but she changed her partner with every number. 
Among those who danced with her were Wilson, Bob Glass's 
youngest son, and for one stumbling attempt myself. After 
the first blushing murmur of consent, she remained silent and kept 
her black eyelashes lowered. My own concentration, her shy- 
ness, and the general hubbub of the dancing made conversation 
impossible. At a false step of mine, her embarrassment threw 


off a quick, wild smile, which showed a flash of white teeth and 
lifted the curves of her cheeks. Beneath the momentarily raised 
lashes her eyes brimmed with a dark life that was almost liquid. 
For the next item I was succeeded as her partner by Kenneth 
Rogers smiling broadly. To my surprise I observed Emily 
talking volubly to him throughout the dance, her eyes raised and 
sparkling ; and repeatedly as she talked, her dark gaze flashed in 
my direction but withdrew instantly when it encountered mine. 

At what we considered the early hour of ten the entertainment 
ended, the family parties reassembled and crowded out through 
the door as if in fear of being left behind. In a remarkably short 
time they disappeared in the warm darkness under the mountain, 
where the cottages lay hidden. Only Kenneth stayed to wash the 
tea-cups while 1 lingered to set the chairs again around the mess- 
table for breakfast. 

'Tell you what, sonny,' he called from the kitchen, * reckon 
I know which gal you'se gonna visit night-time come the Noo 

' Which?* I asked. 

* David's Hemly,' came the answer. 

c Who's David? 5 1 demanded sharply, 

'David Hagan,' he said -then added for my comfort: * Hemly 
is David's daughter.' 

'Hagan! I haven't heard that name before. Are there many 
families on the island called Hagan?' 

'There ain't bare one left. All the others is gone away to 
Sout 5 Africa, else America,' explained Ken, adding as a malicious 
afterthought: 'Guess you won't find no trouble in makin' out 
David's house.' 

' I noticed jou were busy talking to her, ' I accused. 

'Reckon it was Hemly was talkin' to me,' he returned; and 
having waited in vain for me to put the question, he called out: 
* You know what she wass sayin' ? ' 


' She say you was a rale sawny fella. ' 

* What does that mean?' I asked hopefully. 


Kenneth's head appeared round the door. At means you 
ain't got no talk. You didn't say no sweet wo'ds while you was 
dawncin' . ' The head withdrew with a roar of laughter, 

'Noo Yah, 3 as Ken called it, approached in a blaze of sunshine, 
the nights like a series of hot gasps. True to the Scots origin of 
the first settler, the islanders reserved their private merrymaking 
for that occasion. On New Year's Eve boisterous groups passed 
from house to house. The men were fantastically disguised, 
some dressed as women, others with soot-blackened faces and 
equipped with cows' tails. Sidney Glass was beating a big drum 
an oil drum and old Andrew's fiddle fairly squeaked with 
delight. In each cottage that they visited an impromptu dance 
and sing-song were held; but these were private festivities and 
the music reached us only as veiled sounds. 

Until late in the evening the sun was mellow. Its last rays, 
catching the rims of the gulches, kindled them to a greenish-gold 
effulgence. Minute shadows picked out the bushes, giving a 
wild shagginess to the mountainside. Up there the sheep moved 
in changing formations, pale shapes in the dusk. But one of those 
pale shapes was not a sheep. Beside the 'watron' on the lower 
slope near the cottages, a girl in a white dress was walking among 
the rocks. She would vanish, I knew, if I climbed up there ; but 
the sight of her, identified in my imagination with the girl of the 
dance, made me realize how remote we still were from these 
islanders. Surrounded by neighbours exchanging visits in the 
spring twilight, passing to and fro among the low walls of the 
flax gardens, I was still an outsider. It might be worth the 
perseverance needed to win their confidence, to penetrate their 
secrets perhaps to catch up with that white dress fluttering on 
the mountainside. 


Meet the Elders 

MAKING friends with the islanders individually was by no means 
easy. Shyness among the younger ones was still an obstacle. 
The limited number of Christian and surnames added to our 
difficulty ; we often found ourselves confusing one islander with 
another whose combination of names was the same. 

There were only seven family names: Glass, Swain, Green, 
Rogers, Hagan, Repetto, and Lavarello. The Glass family had 
been longest on the island. The first Swain and the first Rogers 
had also belonged to the early days of the settlement. The 
Greens were descended from a Dutch sailor, Peter Green or 
Pieter Groen, who had been shipwrecked on the island. The 
Hagan family derived from Andrew Hagan, an American whaling 
captain who had chosen to settle there. The Repettos and 
Lavarellos were the most recent stock, originating from two 
survivors of a wrecked Italian brigantine, Italia. 

One of these castaways still lived on Tristan and was among the 
earliest acquaintances we made largely because of our associa- 
tion with old Bob Glass, already recognized as our link with the 
village elders. With my colleague ' Ginger, * I had now become a 


regular visitor to Bob's cottage, and from him we gained intro- 
ductions to those he called 'the Old Hands.' 

The opened upper half of the cottage door formed a frame for 
the blood-red flax-buds that nodded against a prospect of stone- 
ahd sheep -dotted turf and the vying blues of sea and sky. It had 
become a familiar picture. 

Across that picture often moved while 'Ginger 9 and I sat 
listening to Bob Glass's ruminations the head and shoulders of a 
little old man who seemed to be Bob's neighbour. Truncated 
by the lower hatch of the door, he appeared momentarily within 
the frame as little more than a floppy, broad-brimmed hat and 
a large white moustache. The hat was worn at a slightly rakish 
angle, throwing over the face a shadow, from which only the 
prominent moustache emerged, flecked silver by the sunlight. 
We asked his name. Bob said that he was Gaetano Lavarello, 
who had been cast away on Tristan fifty years before. He had 
married an island girl and was now the head of a family of three 
generations in the village. . 

His name, we found on seeking his acquaintance, was invariably 
shortened to Gaeta ; and by many of the young people, even those 
unrelated to him, he was affectionately called Uncle. He was 
short and stocky, but still active, dressed usually in a seaman's 
blue jersey and a pair of oversize trousers that he rolled up over 
his ankles. His head was disproportionately large, with a wide, 
flat crown and silvery hair that curled in clusters over his ears but 
had almost vanished on top. His face was the colour of sun- 
kissed stone and remarkably expressive. The silvery bars of his 
moustache lifted as he smiled, giving the lie to the grey, tufted 
eyebrows which he dragged down in a frown of mock severity to 
hide the twinkling of his eyes. 

Talking to Gaeta was like looking into an old mirror which 
magically gave back reflections of fifty years before; and his 
Italian accent combined to droll effect with his Tristan dialect. 
He had been born in the town of Camogli, near Genoa, and some 
of the sunniness of his native climate had passed for ever into his 
nature, surviving even the winds of Tristan. At the age of eleven 


he had run away from the vineyards and gone to sea in a sailing 
ship. His first passage, he remembered, had been from 'Swan- 
see-ah' to Odessa where the cold made him long again for 
Italy. He had loaded ' teaka wood* at Rangoon and ' colda beefa* 
in South America, while still no more than a boy: 

*I musta could on'y been some littla fella then, for Tse on'y a 
littla shorta fella now! * 

He had been impressed into the Italian Navy 't'ree years a 
bluejack' and had been glad to escape. He had visited many 
British ports, including Liverpool at the time when work was 
begun on the Mersey Tunnel: 

1 Guess they musta got 'eem a finisha before now! Guess they 
musta gotta some sorta wagons to taka the peopla t ' rough !' 

Gaeta, while still young, had seen much of the world too 
much. Three times he had been shipwrecked ; and on the third 
occasion he had decided to stay where the sea had cast him. 
With him had stayed his shipmate Andrea Repetto, who had 
acted as interpreter. For the young Gaeta had spoken no 
English. Only after the death of Andrea had he set about learning 
the language of his adopted island. Many years later, when we 
visited him, we found him the father of five sons and a daughter 
and grandfather of twenty- two children on that island. And he 
could no longer speak Italian. 

The long, cabin-like room of his cottage, next to Bob Glass's, 
was often crowded in the evenings while Gaeta spun his 'yarns,' 
as the islanders always called them. When his meaning became 
knotted in the still intractable dialect, he released it by eloquent 
shrugs and gestures. His wife Jane was a neat, matronly 
woman, some years younger than her husband, still fresh- 
coloured but with grey hair, neatly parted. How she would 
shake and shriek proudly with laughter when Gaeta told the 
assembled company about the black women in Africa who carried 
their babies on their backs and had breasts so long that they had 
merely to *tossa' them over their shoulders to feed the babies! 
None of the islanders believed Gaeta's stories, but that only 
increased his power of amusing. 


'Tell you what! ' the young folk would exclaim as they left his 
cottage in the evening. 'Old Gaeta can make you laugh!' 
And that on Tristan was a great recommendation. 

Gaeta himself had loved gaiety as much as any other seaman. 
Screwing one eyebrow down in a ragged wink while the other 
was cocked in roguish innocence, he would recall his nights 
ashore in 'Gibee-alta' and 'Spanishland' 'plenny musica, plenny 
dancing, an 5 plenny pretty gals alia night! ' 

But the pleasure of seafaring had proved less constant than its 
hardships. In a spirit more cynical than romantic he had turned 
from them fifty years ago to the arms of the island girl he had 
married without being able to speak her language. In time 
Gaeta had come even 'to doubt the authenticity of his own youth- 
ful exploits. Their vividness in memory had faded like the 
colours of an old ship's ensign. He had become a familiar sight 
on the island, returning from the Potato Patches with his fork on 
his shoulder, always to the fore on the beach to wave the island 
boats into a safe landing with his unmistakable gestures, an agile 
little figure dodging among the rocks, as excited at the return of 
any expedition as the dogs that barked and chased one another 
about the beach. But Gaeta himself never went out in the boats 
or aboard visiting ships. He had caught in his youth a seasickness 
that would last out his life. When asked why, at the age of 
twenty-five, he had turned exile, he would only reply: 

'Because I was a-tired of a-being a-shipwreck/ 

Andrea Repetto had been a man of character, who had taught 
the islanders many things and had been, in his last years, recog- 
nized as their headman. His widow survived as headwoman and 
was the only woman of the village we heard regularly referred to 
by the title of Mrs and her surname. A visit to Mrs Repetto we 
felt almost as a duty. 

With one exception, her children were married and lived with 
their families in cottages of their own. The exception was her 
eldest son William, who lived at home the most eligible 
bachelor in the community. To his mother he was Willy ; to the 


rest of the population he was * Chief.' We knew him as the 
stolid, heavily built, middle-aged man who had come on board 
the ship on the day of our arrival. 

The Repetto house was the biggest and best furnished in the 
village, standing well back near the mountain slope. It had a 
large flax garden in front and there were two steps up to the 
door. Inside it was lined throughout a feature we found to be 
unusual with timber, all of it from wrecked ships. The whole 
interior suggested a ship and showed the skill and industry of the 
late Andrea. Boards from decks formed the floors; masts and 
spars appeared as beams and supports ; cabin doors gave access to 
rooms. Over the open fire-place in the living-room had been 
inserted the painted name-board of a ship, the Mabel Clark; the 
brightly painted sea-chests, used as seats, were relics, we were 
told, of the same ship. 

Mrs Repetto, now sixty-seven, was a rather stern-looking 
woman, with a brown, lined face, angular and masculine but 
shrewdly intelligent. Her scanty hair was drawn severely back 
and bound in a tight bun behind: like everything else about her, 
we felt, it was put firmly in its place and dared not stray. She 
told us something of her position and that of her son, the Chief. 
Both had been officially appointed by one of the missionaries, 
Father Partridge, who had been empowered by the British 
Government to create a headman, a headwoman, an island 
council, and other officers. The appointments had been made 
but meant little to most of the islanders. The council consisted 
automatically of the heads of all the households. The officers 
were simply such friends and neighbours as the headman or 
woman called on for assistance in matters affecting the whole 
settlement. The Chief's position was particularly anomalous: 
he could hold no more power than the other men were disposed 
to acknowledge him, since he had no means other than the force 
of his own character of imposing his will. In this respect, we 
gathered, Mrs Repetto met no obstacles; but 'Willy/ she 
declared, was not firm enough with some of the less energetic 


Ever since the time of Corporal Glass, the original founder, 
who had been known as Governor Glass before he died, there had 
customarily been one man to whom the other settlers turned as 
leader. From the first of the Glass family the role of nominal 
headship, though without the title of Governor, had passed to an 
old man-of-war's man, John Taylor, alias Alexander Cotton, 
frequently recalled by the islanders as 'Taylor Cotton' ; but the 
actual leadership had quickly become associated rather with the 
Dutchman, Peter Green (originally Groen), from whom the 
numerous Green families in the village were descended. He had 
evidently been a man of strong but gentle character, greatly loved 
and respected on the island. He had filled with dignity a posi- 
tion which he had defined with simplicity to Prince Alfred, the 
Duke of Edinburgh, during his cruise in 1867: 'I am in no way 
superior to the others. We are all equal. I merely speak for 

This feeling for equality had remained traditional among the 
settlers and tended to restrict the power of the nominated head- 
man. In any event, his duties were mainly formal. As there 
was no record of crime in the settlement, there had been no need 
of a magistrate and the most effective policeman was public 
opinion. In trading with visiting ships or welcoming travellers 
and expeditions a spokesman was necessary ; and in the absence of 
a minister the headman had often conducted marriage, christening, 
and burial services, as a ship's captain may. For these functions 
it was natural that one of the more educated members of the 
community should be chosen. Our friend Bob Glass had at one 
time enjoyed the distinction, after his return from South Africa, 
and still told us with pride of the 'sarmons' in which he had 
displayed his 'laminV Eventually Andrea Repetto had been 
designated Chief by the missionary and on his death his son Willy 
(William Peter) had succeeded, his powers further circumscribed 
by the presence of our own naval garrison, with its padre and 
surgeon commander. 

On the other hand Mrs Repetto had acquired, as much by 
the force of her own character as by her standing as headwoman, 


a position of real influence among the women of the island. She 
was the repository of much knowledge of home medicine and 
midwifery that had been handed down among the old women and 
that was more essential to the life of the settlement than the 
formal ministrations of the headman. Moreover she was ready 
to interfere in any matters when she thought necessary. On one 
occasion she had led a party of her henchwomen to the home of 
Long Lena, the laziest housewife in the village, and had cleaned 
out the cottage. When Lena had shaken her fist at the women as 
they were leaving and had called insults after them, Mrs Repetto 
had brought the matter before the Island Council. The offender 
had been sentenced to sit for a day in specially improvised stocks 
on the patch of grass in the middle of the village and to be 
excluded from church on three consecutive Sundays a severe 
punishment where the weekly church-going was a valued form of 
social enjoyment. This was the only instance we heard of in 
which the community had had to take action against a ' criminal. ' 
The headwoman exercised the same strictness over her own 
home. She had brought up a large family to observe rigid rules 
of conduct and assured us that her children had always been the 
better for a good 'hammering' when they misbehaved. Her 
household was characterized by a strong matriarchal discipline, 
which extended not only to the Chief but also to her married sons 
and daughters. In that respect the house of Repetto was excep- 
tional in the village. 

The typical family governance on Tristan was patriarchal and 
the women's position was subordinate, even subservient. An 
example was the household of the oldest inhabitant, Sam Swain, 
whose imperious will after eighty-six years of life still held 
sway over a home as crude and disorderly as that of Mrs Repetto 
was impeccable. Old Sam himself was an imperial figure with 
full white beard. His face was dark brown, marking his descent 
from that Thomas Swain, whose rash vow had united him to the 
Negress among the early settlers. But Sam's features had 
nobility: a high, wide brow traced with fine lines; silvery hair 


flowing back from a well-defined hair-line ; large dark eyes and 
arched grey brows that gave him a touch of arrogance. He was 
proud of his ancestor for two reasons: first, because, as his tomb- 
stone showed, Thomas Swain had lived to the age of a hundred 
and two ; secondly, because he had served under Nelson in the 
Victory and had been, according to the legend preserved among his 
descendants on Tristan, the very seaman who had caught Nelson 
in his arms when he fell at Trafalgar. 

Sam Swain showed signs of rivalling the longevity of his grand- 
father. He could still hop agilely across the 'watxon' that 
flowed near his door, and he seemed to carry his stick as much for 
flourish as for support. His laugh was hearty and revealed a 
strong set of teeth. His voice could still deepen to a stentorian 
bellow when he was crossed. In his straight-backed chair in the 
middle of his slovenly room he would sit with his favourite 
grandson playing at his feet, and visitors approaching the door 
would hear the peremptory thump of his stick on the floor and 
the ring of his voice summoning his daughter or his son-in-law, 
who lived with him: 'Rachel! Harbert!' Once a month one 
of his sons came to trim the old man's beard, of which he was very 
vain. The moustaches swept down over the corners of his 
mouth, but he would deftly lift them back to claim a kiss from 
each of the young girls who visited him. 

Old Sam was a great pipe-smoker, yet he had not taken up 
smoking until the age of seventy-four. He had saved the pleasure 
till his old age. 

'What did you smoke before we came, when you couldn't get 
tobacco?' we asked. 

'Dockleaves/ heanswered, ' They 's rale hawt on the tongue, 
but they bu'n foine.' 

Sam knew how to do many things which had been practised 
by the first generation of settlers, things unknown to his neigh- 
bours. He grew a variety of vegetables unseen in the other 
gardens. And he said he could make matches. They consisted 
of slivers of wood dipped in melted sulphur, which he obtained 
from a small outcrop at the far end of Big Beach. 


* Do they Bum well ? ' we asked. 

'Sure, they bu'n foine,' he said, 'so lawng as you-all got a 
foire or a tinder-box fa' to loight 'em.' 

The older men of Tristan seemed more individual than the 
younger ones and were certainly better talkers. There was Big 
John Glass, brother of Bob Glass and a few years younger. He 
was a noted humorist. Even in his appearance he managed to 
combine the comical with the impressive. He always wore an 
old sea-captain's cap, complete with tarnished gold braid on the 
peak, which he had bartered on board a visiting ship. His voice 
alternated between a deep, hoarse rumble and a cracked, falsetto 
squeak the result probably of pitching it too high, as the 
islanders always did, when shouting against the wind out in the 
boats. Nearly seventy now, he still showed the remains of a fine 
physique, with exceptionally broad shoulders and immense hands, 
In his younger days Big John had been rated the strongest man on 
the island, credited with the ability to break a bullock's neck 
with those great hands of his. 

Another leader of the elder generation was Henry Green, a 
widower, who lived alone in a cottage at the eastern end of the 
village, close under the mountain. He was a quiet, self-reliant 
little man, and although seventy-eight he was still active and 
pulled his weight in his boat. His head was covered with a tight 
mat of white, woolly hair, like a knitted skull-cap, contrasting 
vividly with the brown of his small, wizened face. Henry was 
the local authority on ship 'wracks'; he knew them all and 
welcomed strangers to whom he could tell the histories. Some- 
times, when entertaining a visitor in the evening, he would break 
into a long, quavering solo usually a song of shipwreck. At the 
end of it, he would sit silent, gazing into the crackling wood fire 
while the wind mourned in the chimney. One would imagine 
that he was remembering some sea tragedy of his own; but 
Henry, unlike Gaeta and Bob Glass, had lived his whole life on the 
island where he was born. His only excursion had been as guide 
for the explorers of the Quest on a trip that included Nightingale 


and Inaccessible and also Gough Island, 2^0 miles to the south 
and Henry had not * reckoned much' to Gough Island. 

These and others like them were the elders of the settlement 
the ' old hands. ' They had set the standards, and it was right that 
we should come to know the village first through them. But we 
looked also for friendship among our own generation of islanders . 


The Spinning-wheel 

THE NEW YEAR had brought a new animation to the village scene. 
Women sat out of doors knitting or carding wool ; some washed 
clothes at the stream, pounding them with large stones to loosen 
the dirt, spreading them on garden walls to dry ; children played 
c down on the grass' in front of the settlement, their sharp voices 
rising above the 'quanking' of geese in the 'watrons' and the 
bleating of sheep from the slopes. 

Early in the year the sheep were sheared. First, the boys and 
the dogs went up the mountain and drove them down. They 
came in their hundreds, sweeping over the common, engulfing 
the village rams with curly horns, tucking their chins into their 
fleecy necks to produce deep-throated 'ba-a-aV of indignation, 
ewes with outstretched necks following the rams, lambs bleating 
peevishly after the ewes, boys yipping, dogs yapping, as the 
avalanche swirled over the grassy level in front of die cottages. 
There the flocks were left milling together, until finally they 
settled down to their grazing, which had been interrupted only for 
a few minutes by this wild, dog-driven dash from the mountain. 



The shearing was done in the evenings, after the men returned 
from work at the Potato Patches. The sheep were penned about 
fifteen at a time behind frail hurdles in the stone paddocks. 
They were released one by one and as each sheep came out its 
owner would claim it. Rolling it off its feet, he would grasp its 
head between his knees and swiftly clip away the matted fleece 
with a pair of small hand-shears. 

When carded and spun operations that might be carried on 
indoors by the women at any time of the year this wool provided 
a lasting supply of yarn for the ever-hungry knitting-needles. 
Woollen garments formed the entire underwear and a great part 
of the outerwear of both men and women. It was the almost 
incessant task of wives and mothers to knit stockings and guern- 
seys for their families. Every minute that could be spared from 
working in the house or assisting at the Patches or on the beach 
was devoted by the women to knitting. They walked about 
knitting, sometimes in two's and three's, paying neighbourly 
visits during the warm evenings, clicking their needles at one 
another as they talked. 

The wool was soft and white, when washed, and was never 
dyed. A small stock of coloured worsted, bartered from 'out- 
side/ was kept in most houses for the brightening of stockings or 
white 'ganzeys/ Indeed a ganzey was not considered much of a 
ganzey unless it had several rings of 'marking' wool round the 
bottom. The same applied to the tops of men's stockings, which 
were always worn outside their trousers. There was a special 
language of * markings' that gradually revealed itself to us as the 
courting conventions of the dance had. When a girl received 
with favour the attentions of a young man, she would knit for him 
a pair of stockings, and later a ganzey ; and the strength of her 
affection was told in the number and brightness of the markings. 
When he appeared in a ganzey emblazoned with four such marks 
of her love, it was known that he had reached that stage of ack- 
nowledged tenderness in which he was permitted to make her 
moccasins for her, in place of her father. On such evidence 
relatives could expect a wedding. 


Before the wool could be knitted, it had to pass through several 
processes. First, it had to be combed or 'picked/ to remove the 
knotted lumps, then it received its preliminary washing; next, it 
was oiled slightly, to make it cling together better for carding. 
The purpose of 'carding* was to shape it into rolls suitable for 
spinning. It was done by means of two hand 'cards' small, 
rectangular pieces of wood, each fitted with a short handle and 
faced on one side with stubbly bristles, which might simply be 
bits of fine, stiff wire driven into the wood close together. One 
card was held, bristles uppermost, on the knee and a handful of 
wool flicked on to it. By skilful brushing with the bristles of the 
other card, this wool was teased into a tight little roll, which was 
then removed. 

The carding was done mostly by the older women, who often 
formed little schools or carding-parties, where their tongues 
might wag as their cards scraped. On sunny evenings, three or 
four neighbours such as Charlotte Glass, Gaeta's Jane, and 
John Glass's wife Mima would sit in a row on a bench at the 
'gable-end* of one of their cottages, carding for hours. The 
action of their wrists seemed tireless and quite automatic: it never 
distracted them from their gossip. Like their knitting, it was 
the most social of occupations. 

Spinning was the work of the girls, who were sometimes 
'hired out' between several families for this purpose. It was 
done on huge, old-fashioned wheels, as tall as a man the kind 
at which the spinner stands. Smaller, more modern ones, at 
which the spinner might sit and treadle, had been sent out once 
from England, but the island women had never learnt how to use 
them. Spinning continued to be done on the high, stand-up 
wheels, turned by hand, which had been taken there in the 
nineteenth century Their use required a great deal of energy, 
skill, and grace of movement the grace being an essential part 
of the skill. The occupation displayed a young woman's figure 
to advantage. 

In warm weather, this work like the carding was often 
done out of doors, though not in groups. It was the intermittent 


whirring of a spinning-wheel and the sound of a clear, girlish 
voice singing snatches of song in the intervals that led me one 
evening through an opening of a garden wall into the presence of 
Emily Hagan. She was alone in a little yard between the house 
and a large flax enclosure. The ancient wheel stood on four 
stubby legs in the shade of the wall, and near it was a primitive 
chair on which lay a heap of carded rolls of wool, like fluffy tails, 
ready for spinning. Emily had just stepped back, her right arm 
lifted high in a curve, the strand of wool running smoothly out of 
her hand as the wheel spun when I stepped through the opening. 
Her arm remained stationary in the air, her mouth open around 
the last uttered syllable of her song, as she stared aghast. The 
shock of my sudden appearance had checked even the usual 
impulse to run into the house. She stood transfixed in her pose 
like a waxwork figure. The wheel whirred slowly to a stand- 
still ; the strand of wool running from her hand to the spool 
stretched thinner and thinner and snapped. It was like the 
snapping of a nerve. 

'Now you've done it! J I accused. 

Her only answer was a blush that mantled the whole of her 
ripe-cheeked face. But she dropped her strained immobility 
and, lowering her eyes, took another fluffy tail of wool from the 
pile. With fingers that had just learnt how to fumble, she began 
to * splice ' it on to the ragged end of the torn strand. Her white 
blouse had short sleeves unusual on Tristan revealing the soft 
upper part of her arms. Her elbows looked rough and slightly 
red by contrast. With the fingers of her left hand she twirled the 
wooden spokes of the big wheel, then moved backwards with a 
light, tripping step, like a dance step, her right hand drawing the 
wool gently back and upwards as it ran on to the spool; her wrist 
arched like a swan's neck. For an instant her eyes were raised 
to mine, but dropped immediately. The colour flowed again 
beneath her dusky skin and her movements became stiff and 

' Do you mind if I sit and watch you spin ? ' 

She made no reply, but her glance followed me apprehensively 


as I took a seat on the chair, gathering into my lap the pile of 
woolly tails. As the spool devoured the strand that was running 
from her uplifted right hand, she allowed the wheel to run down 
again and her arm fell to her side in an attitude of helplessness . I 
offered her a fresh roll of wool from the pile I had appropriated. 
She stood still for several seconds before slowly reaching out her 
hand to take it. A shy smile crinkled the corners of her eyes but 
never really got as far as her lips. And the fire of embarrassment 
glowed so brightly in her cheeks that I felt compelled to turn my 
inspection upon the cottage. 

It was a large one and had once been painted white. Four 
hollow-worn steps led up to the front door, and in the far 
corner of the yard was another door giving entry to a lower 
storey, the * cellar' which made the Hagan house unique on the 

The girl's composure was partially restored and several more 
rolls of wool had been spun out, when her mother appeared at 
the half-door at the top of the steps and called: 

'Hemly, wheah's you' manners, gal? Waffa' you don't 
hakse anybawdy up the house for a cuppa drink? ' 

Then, looking at me momentarily and opening the bottom half 
of the door as a gesture of invitation, she hazarded a 'Good 
hevenin' ' as she withdrew into the dark interior. 

I had risen from my chair, still holding the pile of carded wool, 
but made no move towards the steps. Emily was faced with the 
ordeal of making the formal offer of hospitality, as instructed by 
her mother. 

It came at last in a small, breathless whisper through the spokes 
of the spinning-wheel. They were the first words I heard her 

'If you wouldn't moind going up to the house, Momma will 
make you-all a drink ' 

She broke off and stood watching me with an almost anxious 
expectancy. I gathered that I was intended to climb the steps 
and enter the house alone. The girl showed no sign of con- 
ducting or accompanying me. She seemed, rather, to be 


hoarding some sort of grudge, perhaps at the prolonged inter- 
ruption of her spinning. Yet, when I was seated inside the 
cottage and drinking the cup of strong, black 'tea' with which 
I had been plied by her mother, I heard no more of the whirring 
and clicking of the ancient wheel in the yard outside. 

Where Emily had gone I don't know, but it was half an hour 
later, when I had exhausted the slender conversational powers of 
her mother, and when the gathering dusk made necessary the 
lighting of a bird-oil lamp on the table beside my drained cup, 
that I became aware of a white-clad figure in the doorway of the 
room: the tiny, leaping flame revealed it leaning motionless 
against the door-post. From soft shadow the girl's eyes held me 
in silent scrutiny. 

*By the good Massy! ' exclaimed the mother. 'How long 'at 
gal been stood there watchin' like 'at? Hemly, ain't you got no 

With a change of tone, as she recovered from the slight shock 
of seeing the girl, she asked: 'What you done wid the wheel?' 

Emily pointed out through the door. 

4 Well, if you ain't gonna do no more spinnin' to-night, you 
best go an' put the wheel in the cellar.' 

Disregarding the mother's protest, I rose quickly. 

'Let me carry it for you.' 

Down in the yard, I lifted the tall wheel on its four-legged 
stand while the girl flitted ahead to open the door of the cellar, 
which was like a cave beneath the house and to which I descended 
by a slight incline in the corner of the yard. Staggering a little 
under the ungainly wheel, I heard a faint exclamation of solici- 
tude inside the cellar. I was aware of the girl there in the dark- 
ness as I set the spinning-wheel down on the earthen floor, then 
she seemed not to be there any more. I had not heard her move, 
but when I emerged she was waiting outside. 

The night air was an enveloping golden presence as we stood 
at the break in the wall. I was conscious of bare, rounded arms 
and the fragrance of thickly clustered hair. The lingering day 
was full of noises. As the sky darkened to a deep umbrageous 


blue, speckled with starlight, and the village was swallowed by 
darkness at the foot of the mountain, from somewhere in that 
blackness came the throaty plaint of an old sheep, like a voice 
from the mountain. From that other obscurity, silver-gleaming 
below the cliffs, came the muttered irony of the surf. 

The girl waited only a few minutes before her full lips breathed 
'Good night 1 and she slipped towards the house. 

'Shall I come to see you again?' I called softly. 

She may or may not have answered 'Yes.' If she did, it was 
probably from politeness. 


Unfriendly Neighbour 

AFTER three months on Tristan we had contracted the islanders' 
habit of observing with an interest suspiciously akin to boredom 
the weather signs of the sea and sky: the ground swell, the 
white caps, the extent of the lee, the direction and speed of the 
cloud movement. Our gauge of visibility was the grim outline 
of Inaccessible Island as seen through the west window of the hut 
on Herald Point. Every morning at sunrise the operator on duty 
consulted that mass of rock eighteen miles south-west of Tristan ; 
every evening at sunset he observed it again fiercely silhouetted 
against the slash of amber sky above the horizon, then fading in 
the deepening glow until it vanished like a sinking ship. This 
disappearing trick gave Inaccessible an air of mystery. There was 
always the query : would it be there again the next day ? 

Often, as far as we could see, it was not. For days the island 
would be lost in the sea mist. Then one morning it would 
re-emerge startlingly clear, with all its crags boldly outlined as if 
treading the water towards us. Across the intervening sea-way 
it seemed to exert a remote but baleful influence on the human 



intruders on Tristan, forbidding yet challenging an invasion of its 
own shores. If the peak of Tristan was a disturbing host to have 
looming always at one's shoulder, Inaccessible was a scowling 
neighbour that one felt obliged to visit, even in the certainty 
of a hostile reception. The islanders made the excursion 
early in the year to collect guano. Curiosity made me join 

The morning was fine and sunny, the sky a clear blue ; a light 
breeze was freshening. After the rush of preparation at a very- 
early hour, there were the usual delays and uncertainties before 
the trip was started. Eventually the women and children on the 
beach had kissed the men good-bye, some tearfully, as if the three 
or four days* separation might be extended to a lifetime ; six boats 
had been pushed off and pulled clear of the kelp. There we 
stood by for the word 'Hyshe away' until the women, halted at 
the top of the bank, had responded to the customary three cheers 
from the combined crews of the boats. 

I was in the Wild Rose or, as she was more often called, the 
long-boat. She was reckoned the best boat for sailing but 
slow for pulling, being slightly heavier than the others. We 
had been the last crew to put off from the shore and pull clear 
of the kelp reef. The favourable breeze made it possible to 
'hyshe' sail 'fair off the beach/ and the long-boat picked up 
her lead. 

There were five islanders in the boat, of whom the only one I 
really knew was 'Bunty' Rogers, the brother of Kenneth, our 
mess-boy. The other hands were two of old Gaeta's sons, 
Robert and Lawrence Lavarello, with Robert's son Hilden, and 
a dark, long-faced fellow wearing the discarded cap of a ship's 
officer: this I learned to be Emily's father, David Hagan. Leaning 
back in the bows, relaxed to the gentle lurching of the boat, he 
smoked a pipe and watched with a slow smile but never contri- 
buted to the conversation. 

Robert Lavarello was considered one of the best helmsmen. 
His commands were issued in a quiet, almost apologetic tone that 


mingled with the soothing voice of the sea. The breeze sang in 
the cordage. On shore it had seemed a very gentle breeze but 
now it proved brisk enough to send the boats skimming like white 
cloudlets over the water. We travelled at a surprising speed. 
Occasionally an extra 'puff' would billow the sail of our craft 
and send her flying across the waves in what the islanders called a 
'sleigh ride* : the water rushed with a bubbling sound under the 
canvas bows, breaking into two foaming sluices, as the boat raced 
into a trough and over several crests before losing speed. Spray 
flew in our faces; the tang of salt was on our lips. The men 
laughed, and sang out to one another from boat to boat, their 
deep voices pitched high and carrying thinly across the water. 
In the long-boat the sail was continually being lowered to take in 
another reef or to wait for the other boats to catch up, for it was 
considered discourteous to make the destination ahead of Chief's 
boat, Canton (pronounced CANTon). Robert called softly for a 
tightening of a slackening of the jib ; the heavy boom of the main- 
sail thumped rhythmically on the gunwale, its tip often breaking 
water as the boat heeled over. 

From the sea I had my first unimpeded view of the peak of 
Tristan, which had been shawled in mist on the day of our arrival 
at the island. I was surprised to see that the great precipice 
rising up to what the islanders called the 'base' and comprising 
our whole prospect of the mountain from the settlement was in 
fact only a third of the total height and that the low plateau on 
which the village stood was a mere ledge appearing from a 
distance to be raised barely above the line of the surf. For over 
two hours we watched that imperious peak furling its grey dignity 
about its shoulders, receding into its own mist, yet the smaller, 
grimmer mass of Inaccessible seemed no nearer. The third 
island of the group, Nightingale, was now in sight twenty miles 
away to the south. It looked a' peaceful, friendly little island, 
with a more irregular profile than its bigger neighbours. 

It was the middle of the afternoon before Inaccessible began to 
present itself in clearer detail. Soon we could see the white 
streak of the waterfall, marking the locality of Salt Beach, where 


we should land. As we came in closer I noticed trees high up 
on the 'base/ larger and more luxuriant than any on the home 
island. The fall cascaded into a slight bay, hardly a bay at all, 
a mere indentation of the cliff-face, with a curving ribbon of 
beach. Here we lowered sail and waited our turn to land. The 
Canton went in first. In the choppy water of the bay the other 
boats bobbed and pranced like restive horses, their motion 

Around and above us rose the cliffs, echoing to the wild cries 
of disturbed sea-birds. The walls seemed to cast a dark, damp, 
forbidding shadow over the expedition. The island had an air of 
belonging to a remote world, alien to human contact. It seemed 
to brood in the solitude of mid ocean, instinct with a life of its 
own. Its only inhabitants were the birds that wheeled, scream- 
ing, about its craggy sides and the noisy penguins that nested in 
the long tussock-grass above the beach. There was a wildness 
and a strangeness different from that of Tristan the aloofness 
of a place unfrequented by men. 

The wailing of the sea-birds was echoed several octaves lower 
by the moaning of the waterfall, which poured over the rim of 
the mountain through a V-shaped cleft revealing a vivid segment 
of green vegetation. The face of the cliff was matted with long, 
coarse tussock-grass, which hung shaggily in a great swaying 
curtain down the precipice. That which grew near and behind 
the cascade was wet and luxuriant, a glistening stairway for the 
leaping water. 

One after another the boats were run ashore, and the first job 
to be done when they were all unloaded was to haul them up to 
the ridge of sloping shingle, where it gave place to the miniature 
jungle of tussock that extended from the cliffs to the beach. 
Here each boat was overturned and canted up at one side, the 
raised gunwale being propped up by a wall hurriedly constructed 
of the biggest stones that could be found. A doorway was left 
in the front. All the other spaces were blocked in with pebbles. 
In this way the boat became a tiny, windowless cottage, with a 
square hole of a doorway and a high, arched roof of wood and 


canvas sloping down to the ground at the back. We collected 
armfuls of tussock and spread them over the pebbles inside, to 
soften the floor that was to be our bed. 

There was drift-wood along the beach ; soon fires were smoking 
and pots of water and cans of potatoes were on the boil. After 
the meal I walked on the shore as far as possible a distance of 
less than a mile. Beyond that the cliffs dropped sheer into the 
sea again. The beach itself varied in width from about five to 
thirty yards and was strewn with rocks and gigantic boulders that 
had rolled down from the mountain. Behind it ran a low escarp- 
ment, rising at some points to a height of twenty feet, at others 
dropping almost to the level of the beach. On top of this bank 
waved the tussock. The whole of this side of the island was 
covered with this growth. High on the walls it looked like 
green matting; lower down it hung like tangled, shaggy hair; 
from the foot-slopes it rolled in gleaming, swaying waves to end 
in a ragged, upstanding fringe above the low forehead of the 
beach. Only in a few places was it interrupted by bare patches 
and pinnacles of rock. 

Walking below the verge of this forest of grass, I was almost 
deafened by the honking of thousands of penguins that crowded 
within its depths, out of sight. At a point where the tussock 
came down to the level of the beach, as if spilt over, I entered 
and was overtopped by eight-foot grasses. The sea was lost to 
sight. Stooping under arches of green blades, I was met at every 
turn by indignant penguins that made no effort to move out of 
my way. They shuffled about like little men, all very busy, very 
noisy and very short-tempered, occasionally bumping into one 
another as they marched along the narrow tracks that criss- 
crossed among the clumps of grass roots, sometimes even 
stretching out their necks to peck vindictively at the legs of the 
intruder ; I was glad to be wearing sea-boots. I felt like Gulliver 
in a Lilliputian jungle. 

The islanders were already taking advantage of the fine evening 
to collect guano from the rich deposits which lined the floors 
of these miniature galleries and green aisles. I came upon them 


at intervals busy with their spades filling the bags they had brought 
with them. 

I wandered among the tussock until I began to feel lost in a 
strange underworld. At length I emerged, and in the lingering, 
mellow twilight walked back along the beach. Tiny 'starchies,' 
or land-thrushes, kept running out of the tussock as if chased out 
by the inhospitable penguins. The boom of the surf accom- 
panied me back to the camp, where the islanders were preparing 
to retire under the upturned boats. Each boat formed a tem- 
porary house for the members of its crew ; I found my way to the 
'house' bearing the name zsoy p/r^ , where Bunty had already laid 
out my blanket on the pebbles. It was a hard bed, but dry and 
warm. With the prospect of a full day's work on the morrow, 
the men wasted no time in talk before sleep. Pipes were tapped 
out and placed with little tins of precious tobacco on the thwarts 
of the inverted boat, which formed convenient shelves over our 
heads. An empty guano bag was stretched across the doorway as 
a curtain; in the darkness we fell asleep. 

I must have slept soundly, for the next thing of which I was 
conscious was Bunty crawling into the 'hut 7 with a cup of hot 
* drink' in the morning. Outside rain was pouring down. I was 
comfortable enough under a blanket, though the strewn grasses 
did little to soften the impact of the pebbles, which seemed to 
have grown sharper during the night. Hilden Lavarello and 
David Hagan were still lying in their blankets at the far end of the 
'hut. 5 Lawrence, lacing up his moccasins, kept up a lively banter, 
mainly- haranguing the weather. The sack in the doorway had 
been hitched back at one corner. I supped Bunty's black brew, 
listening to the tattoo of the rain on the taut canvas of the boat 
and the steadier, heavier dripping outside from the gunwale 
the eaves of our house. 

We were compelled by the rain to spend the morning stretched 
out on our blankets, leaning against the boat's side, smoking, 
talking, chaffing, passing jocular remarks and fills of tobacco from 
one to another. David Hagan puffed placidly at his pipe in his 


corner under the bows: it seemed to be his character to look on 
benignly from a corner, smoking the pipe of peace. I lay back 
and contemplated the rafter-like pattern of the arched roof made 
by the ribs of the boat. Eventually Robert, the helmsman, 
thrust his head into the hut to announce that the rain had stopped 
and a fire had been lit. We crawled out into a wan, watery 
daylight. After a meal the work of collecting guano went 
forward. The filled bags made a slowly mounting pile on the 

Just behind our camp, near the waterfall, were the remains of a 
stone-built cottage, the last witness of an attempt which fourteen, 
of the men from Tristan had made, a few years earlier, to start a 
companion settlement on Inaccessible. The settlers had brought 
sheep and pigs across from the main island and had built the 
cottage and a storehouse. The sheep had found their way up on 
to the plateau, where they thrived; the pigs had become dan- 
gerous beasts lurking in the tussock forest. Of the little store- 
house only one gable-end remained, looking like the forsaken, 
altar of some savage deity. The cottage seemed to have sunk 
into the undergrowth. Its roof sagged and grasses sprouted 
through the thatch. The door-posts still stood, like the pro- 
jecting ribs of a wasting carcass. Nature had defeated the scheme 
with an ease which made it all the more evident how precarious 
was the hold these exiles had, even after a century of settlement, 
on their own island. 

In the grass about the abandoned hut was to be found the little 
'island cock/ formally named Atlantisea Rogers! after the Rev. 
R. M. C. Rogers, who had been the third missionary on Tristan 
and the first to visit Inaccessible. The bird is a species of flight- 
less rail which has long been extinct in the rest of the world. 
Owing to its inability to fly, it cannot migrate even to Tristan or 
Nightingale Island. It is a black bird with a red bill, similar to a 
common English moorhen, but smaller. It runs over the pebbles 
on frail black legs but is difficult to catch; and it is so delicate that 
it does not survive in captivity long enough to be carried alive to 
Tristan. The other bird-life on Inaccessible includes a kind of 


finch and a 'noddy' or wood-pigeon, which in spite of its name is 
a sea-bird. Most of the species familiar on the main island were 
to be seen in greater numbers on Inaccessible: long- winged 
fulmars, known by the islanders as * black eaglets' ; a kind of tern 
which they called a 'king bird' ; blue petrels or * night birds' ; 
another bird of the petrel family called a 'pediunker' ; the 4 pio* 
or sooty albatross ; and occasionally the great white 'wandering' 
albatross, known by the seaman's traditional name for it, the 
'goney.' On rare occasions I had seen the bird wheeling in 
its graceful flight over Tristan, but none ever nested there and 
only a few on Inaccessible. When the islanders caught one, 
they used the hollow bones from its wide, powerful wings as 

Lastly, of course, there was that noisy and prolific amphibian, 
the penguin not the smooth-headed type, but the rock-hopper, 
with a crest of black and yellow 'tossels' forming an angry, war- 
like topknot on his head. 

In the evening all these birds combined to form a mournful 
chorus bewailing our presence on the island. When the guano- 
collecting was finished, all the men assembled round a fire that 
had been lit close under the cliff-face. We sat in a tight circle 
gazing intently at the flames, our backs turned on the sea, as 
if to shut out the wild sighing of the surge and the keening of 
its birds. The cry of the petrel was particularly disturbing, a 
sharp sobbing wail that sounded intolerably like that of a child 
in. distress. 

To repel the sense of desolation with which the island was 
trying to destroy us, a sing-song was proposed, but the natural 
diffidence of the islanders interposed an obstacle. Many of them 
had good bass voices but at first no one was willing to sing a solo. 
Attempts were made to persuade George Glass, or 'Gillie' as he 
was called, but he would only reiterate in an embarrassed rumble : 
'Oi doan' know no sawngs! ' or ' Oi ain't got no wice! ' At last, 
without preliminary, Arthur Repetto burst into the opening 
verse of a long ballad about the ship Golden Wanitee. He was 
singing in a high, strained voice, far above his normal deep 


speaking tones. With every chorus the rest of the men would 
join in: 

'An* they sink 'im in the lowlands, 
Lowlands, lowlands, 

An* they sink 'im in the lowlands low. 9 

This song went on for a long time and was hardly less doleful 
than the sobbing of the petrels. Afterwards old Henry Green 
proffered a quavering solo, then Dick Swain sang a rollicking but 
unintelligible song about a certain 'Whisky Wan.' 

In the intervals between the singing, the surf chafed at the 
shore. The baffling, inhuman enmity of the place seemed to 
take the heart out of the singers, and as we retired to sleep 
beneath the upturned boats, the screaming of the sea-birds 
seemed to have a sharp note of derision. They swooped low 
over our heads, their wings cleaving the dark air. 

The next morning brought the inevitable indecision as to 
whether the wind and sea were suitable for the return voyage to 
Tristan. The men gathered in conclave about the Canton, where 
Chief's deep voice resounded with the accession of authority that 
came to him when he was away from the preponderating influence 
of his mother. There was no need for hurry, it was agreed; the 
wind was in the wrong quarter, it was agreed ; nevertheless they 
would attempt the crossing, it was agreed. The 'huts' were 
demolished, the boats righted, the bags of guano loaded, and one 
after another the crews pushed off and pulled away to hoist sail. 

It took us seven hours to return the distance that we had 
travelled in three. The boats drifted too far out in the ocean and 
could find no breeze. The sails flapped lamely against the masts 
and the light craft were dandled up and down for hours by the 
waves, while the sun scorched us unmercifully. When at last 
we did arrive off Little Beach, we found almost the whole popu- 
lation of Edinburgh Settlement waiting there to welcome us back 
and to assist in hauling up the loaded boats. As we rose on the 
surf I recognized the sturdy little figure of Gaeta capering at the 
edge of the water to catch the rope tossed by David Hagan from 


the bows of the Wild Rose. On the beach Charlotte Glass waited 
with her 'pawt o' tea' and two cups, one for her son Wilson, 
who was witti his stepbrothers in the British Trader, and one for 
myself. I had a sense of homecoming, of being welcomed back 
in the same terms as the islanders. David Hagan^ I observed, was 
being greeted with a touch of soft lips by his daughter Emily. 
My own attention, however, was proprietorily demanded by old 


The Wheel of Fortune 

A CHANGE had come over our exile. I felt it in myself and saw 
it in others. Partly, of course, it was due to the change of 

As I leaned over the half-door of the hut on Herald Point an 
early morning fragrance hung in the air was it the memory of 
yesterday's heat or the promise of to-day's? Strung out along 
the sky, cotton-wove clouds, poised still, patterned the sea with 
their white reflections. In the east, where the sun was streaming 
through, they gathered in a bank of dazzling whiteness, below 
which the sea shone serene and blueless. 

I looked at Inaccessible an acquaintance now, however un- 
friendly. Out of the western haze it emerged as a blur of pale 
cliffs topped with a fringe of greenish-grey. Rising slowly from 
its southern tip to a lofty forepeak, it came into view like a low- 
sterned cruiser, with a drift of cloud trailing like smoke from 
its crest. 

The world around the hut was wide awake. In the fore- 
ground, where the turf at the cliff-edge made a green rim against 
the sea, sheep 'blocked home' since the shearing were 
already grazing, taking little foreward runs between nibbling, 



keeping their muzzles in readiness a few inches above the grass as 
they moved. They followed one another like automatons ; their 
tails flicked as if by mechanism, and the yellow-flecked eyes that 
they raised for a moment to look at the man in the doorway had a 
mild, unseeing blankness. 

It was especially at this early hour that I was aware of the 
change. Leaving the hut, I glanced up, as always, at the moun- 
tain those high slopes of rock, scantily clothed with drab-green 
moss or was it really grass? There was a curious power of 
vitality in the sombre, grey walls of the extinct volcano. They 
no longer seemed oppressive, as they had when we arrived. 
There was a calmness of spirit to be derived from their strength, 
from the stillness up there, the dark quietude at the tops of the 
gulches, the stern, unavoidable gaze of that graven face. 

The change was really a clearer perception. It had come 
slowly yet, in the end, suddenly. At a moment when the sun 
was gleaming on the backs of the grasses and trying to hide in a 
friendly haze the bald head of the mountain making it seem 
farther away, so that it could be seen more objectively the 
realization had come: here was peace and dignity and a still, quiet 

In myself the new outlook had something, too, to do with the 
growing familiarity of a white dress. When, during February, 
David Hagan went away again with the other men to collect guano 
on Nightingale Island, I did not go ; and in his absence I came to' 
know fairly well the rest of his household. 

Once, in the time of Andrew Hagan, the American whaling 
captain who had been the first of that name to settle on Tristan, 
the family had been the wealthiest on the island wealth being 
measured, of course, in sheep and cattle. Now it was one of the 
poorest. David did not even own a yoke of oxen: he had to 
borrow from a neighbour. But the family still lived in the old 
house, which was one of the biggest and most solidly built in the 
village. The interior was divided into two parts, one occupied 
by David, his wife and four children, the other by his widowed 
mother, old Susan Hagan. 


i & 2. The wool, after being 
'picked' to remove knots and 
lumps, is slightly oiled and 
then worked between the 
wooden ' cards ' into rolls 
ready for spinning. (Emma 

C Alice Glass Sidney's wife and Margaret Repetto) 


<' L 



The men wave their caps and reply to three cheers from the women on the 

beach before hoisting sail. 



The first time I saw her at the house I recognized the widow as 
the old woman I had seen at the far end of Big Beach collecting 
wood with the two urchins, * Grannie Toodie,' I now under- 
stood, had been their rendering of Grannie Susie. The urchins 
themselves greeted me anew with a mixture of shyness and famili- 
arity. The elder of the pair, Donald, at seven years old still 
spoke imperfectly and was obviously less intelligent than his 
brother. The only thing positive about him was his love of the 
seashore. He was as amphibious as a young seal. It was his 
mother's incessant complaint about him that 'all 'e ever wanna do 
is pynte for 'at owd beach.' Several times a day he would 
return home sodden with brine. In all other matters he was 
ruled and often fooled by his brother Piers, a bright-eyed, 
saucy-faced imp of four, who in features greatly resembled his 
sister Emily. The boys referred to each other as 'buddy' which 
meant brother, and to Emily as 'tiddy' meaning sister. There 
was another sister, Angela, a silent, shrinking, watchful child, 
three or four years younger than Emily, with great black eyes 
like polished bosses . She resembled her mother. 

Emily, the eldest of the family, for all her shyness of the 
moment, had an abundant vitality and a sparkle to her eyes that 
suggested a love of mischief equal to her little brother's. She 
was still spinning on the first few evenings when I saw her, but the 
wheel had been carried up into the main room of the house. 
This may have been because she feared the embarrassment of 
being surprised again alone in the yard ; but it may equally have 
been because she saw no reason why I should sit in the house 
talking with her mother while she was left outside with no better 
company than her spinning-wheel. 

For days the acquaintance made little progress. She displayed 
before me all the arts and graces of a skilful spinner, and some- 
times when I turned quickly from speaking to her mother I found 
the girl's dark gaze fixed on me. She would blush and even 
smile. But she would not talk. It is true that conversation was 
virtually impossible as long as the spinning continued. The 
whirling of the big wheel set up such a rumbling vibration in the 


wooden-floored room that I could do little more than nod and 
smile my appreciation of hospitable words or gestures. Such 
complete remarks as achieved utterance at all were wedged 
uneasily into the brief silences when Emily was splicing a fresh 
roll of wool to her yarn. 

A climax came when I arrived one evening to find the spinning- 
wheel silent and leaning against the wall with something of the 
dejected air of a stringless cello . I could not see what was wrong 
with it, but I felt that in some way its power of endurance had 
been overtaxed. Nothing was said about it. Indeed after the 
preliminary greetings almost nothing was said at all. The room 
seemed unnaturally quiet, and the quietness had a kind of tension 
about it. 

For nearly an hour conversation fought a losing battle against 
the clacking of three pairs of knitting-needles. For Grannie 
Susan, who for some time had taken a surreptitious interest in my 
comings and goings, had hobbled through from her part of the 
cottage into the main room on the *wes' soyde,' where she now 
sat hunched over her knitting while her eyes flitted from face to 
face and her mouth occasionally twitched as if at some secret 

The younger children were out of sight. Emily and her 
mother knitted intently. The room had an uncomfortable air of 
waiting and the needles seemed to fly faster and faster. I longed 
for the homely rumble of the spinning-wheel. At last the old 
woman's voice croaked up: 'I knew 'at Hemly would be too 
skeered to akse 'im. ' 

Knitting-needles fell defeated into laps and the girl's face 
flooded with shame. 

' What is it you were going to ask me, Emily?' 

She sat very still for a moment, then took a deep breath deep 
enough to bring out in one long, prepared recitation: 'Would 
you-all be so kind as to give me some cord to make a new rim for 
my spinning-wheel?' 

The last of that long, breath expired in a little sigh of relief as if 
her part in an arduous affair had been completed. 


'How much will you need? 5 I asked. 

With quiet casualness and but the smallest intake of breath she 
replied: 'About two fathoms.' 

From that moment barriers melted like ice-floes, the future 
rippled ahead in a straight, blue channel and the knitting-needles 
joggled with merriment. 

'Now you'll have to knit 'irn a pair of Tristan sawks,' the old 
woman prodded. But Emily only smiled and lowered her head 
demurely over the pair she was already knitting. 

The little 'buddies/ Donald and Piers, came running home 
from somewhere, full of prattle and curiosity. Angela peered 
round a corner she seemed to go through life doing it to see if 
the coast was clear. I could have told her that it was as clear as 
her sister's complexion. But it would not have been in Angela's 
nature to believe it if the coast itself had spoken and told her. 


The Workaday Week 

A NARROW shelf of land just above the reach of the surf; an 
outlook restricted to the varied monotony of the sea ; a back- 
ground composed of a miserable mountain that seems to have 
a chronic cold in the head; such is the world of the Tristan 
islander, to whom any intrusion from beyond the horizon is like a 
visit from another planet. 

Ask an islander what he does all day and he replies 'spadin' ' 
that is, digging his potato patch. 

* And what do you do when you're not spading? * 

*Oh, puttin' in' potatoes, of course. 

'But you don't do that all the year round?' 

'No, some time we go fishinV 

And that is as far as you get. Apart from that and an occasional 
trip to one of the neighbouring uninhabited islands to collect 
guano or penguins' eggs, or an excursion up the mountain or 
round to another beach for drift-wood, there is 'nawthinV 
Life is stripped to its bare bones, like the bleached ribs of dead 
donkeys that we so often came across in the gulches. 



The younger generation of islanders were, as Bob Glass alleged, 
much less enterprising than their ancestors. Sam Swain, the 
oldest inhabitant, could recall the days when the island popu- 
lation, numbering then less than a hundred, did a brisk barter in 
poultry, potatoes, and other provisions with passing ships. An 
export trade in cattle had been carried on with St Helena and even 
with the Cape. But now Tristan had become a land of want. 

Even if the whalers had not ceased to frequent the waters 
around them, the islanders would not have had the provisions 
with which to barter from the skippers the articles they required. 
Where hardship had stimulated the original settlers, want and 
neglect had stultified their descendants. Only a few cattle were 
kept now as milking cows and, as old Bob had complained, the 
housewives had given up making butter and cheese. Poultry 
were scarce and the villagers were content with penguins' eggs or 
the even less savoury petrels' eggs, fried in the birds' own oil, to 
vary their monotonous diet of potatoes and fish. Only one or 
two of the 'old hands/ such as Sam Swain and Henry Green, 
still made the effort to raise a handful of green vegetables in their 
cottage gardens. The only fruit was the apples which had been 
planted long ago at Sandy Point on the eastern side of the island. 
From these the islanders made a sour cider which they called 
'Old Tom/ This was less potent than the black 'tea' they 
brewed ; and even the tea plant no longer flourished. 

Fortunately fish were still plentiful, and now that mild 
weather had set in and the seas were calm the men and boys spent 
many hours in their dinghies, tied up to a kelp-reef about half 
a mile off shore. Often they would spend whole days in this 
manner, lazily lopped on the tide, sometimes rowing out a couple 
of miles in search of the larger blue-fish. 

For the purposes of fishing, the islanders had developed some 
skill in boat-building, making good use of their resources of 
drift-wood and canvas acquired at rare intervals from ships. 
With the exception of the ribs, which were made of apple-tree 
wood from the plantation at Sandy Point, the entire frames of the 
boats were made of drift-wood. Over the ribs were laid 


horizontal pieces called 'slabbies' and on these was nailed the 
canvas, oiled and painted. The building of a boat took several 
weeks, as the frame had to be left out in the open to weather and 
to set into the requisite shape, to which it had been bent by the 
use of cords. In its early stages, it looked like the skeleton of 
some ancient Viking galley washed up on the strand. 

The boats were of two sizes. The larger ones, of which the 
biggest was about twenty-six feet, could be rigged for sailing, and 
were used for the longer trips to the other islands of the group or 
to the farther points of Tristan itself. The smaller ones, the 
dinghies, were used for fishing and for collecting drift-wood from 
the beaches around Big Point. The large boats had names, most 
of them commemorating ships which had visited the island. 
Chief's boat that is, the one manned by Willy Repetto, his 
brother Johnny, and several other * hands' was the Canton; 
Joe Repetto had his share with the Glass brothers in the British 
Trader; old Gaeta's son, Robert Lavarello, was helmsman of the 
Wild Rose; some of the Swains manned the Lorna, affectionately 
termed the lonnie, others the Violet ; Johnny Green was coxswain 
of the Morning Star, Arthur Repetto of Pincher. One boat was 
named Doctor Christopher sen, after the leader of the Norwegian 
scientific expedition that had visited Tristan, but those who found 
the doctor's name unmanageable were content with the sobriquet 
'Ticket.' Only one dinghy bore a name that of Shackleton's 
famous Quest, which had called at the island on its last voyage. 

The names of the boats were painted either on the bows or on 
the stern-boards in large but uncertainly formed letters, the name 
Violet being misspelt *Voilet' and pronounced 'Woilet/ All 
the traditional names of boat parts were in use, having been 
handed down from one generation to another: gunwale, strakes, 
thwarts, stem-sheets, knees, rowlocks. The stern was always 
the 'starn.' 

When not in use, particularly during rough weather, the boats 
were hauled up the steep rock slope from Little Beach by means 
of an .old capstan erected on the cliff-top. There they were 
stored in a sheltered hollow, which acted as a haven and in the 


banks of which were cut neat, rectangular recesses, each meant to 
hold one boat. The boats were lashed in position by ropes 
passed over their tops and secured beneath large boulders on the 
ground. This somehow gave the impression of rows of stalled 
oxen, comfortably sheltered from wind and weather. The 
impression was strengthened by the inexplicable habit the islands 
had of building a little barricade, two stones high, across the 
mouth of each recess, as if to prevent the boats from breaking out 
of their stalls. Altogether the boat-haven was a snug place, 
shielded by its own banks from the wind above, cut off from any 
view of the settlement and with the surf pounding the beach just 

At the inland end of the hollow huddled the decrepit structure 
of an old boat-house, with cruel wind-rents in its thatch. Inside 
this, on a floor littered with odds and ends of tackle, ropes, 
blocks, derelict sea-chests, boxes of fish-hooks, tufts of sheep- 
wool, rotting calfskin bags, all resembling so much animal 
refuse, was kept like an old bull that must be penned aloof from 
the stalled cattle a large wooden lifeboat that had been presented 
by the captain of a visiting ship. It was rarely used by the 
settlers, being found too * bull-headed ' and unmanageable. The 
twisting 'island-tree' rafters, the sagging thatch, and barefaced 
walls contributed a byre-like effect to the inside of the building. 
Unconsciously one looked for a manger at the boat's head. 

In the life of Tristan boats were of great importance. While 
still young, the boys were allowed, encouraged, to go out alone 
in the dinghies, fishing off the shore; and as soon as a youth 
acquired strength and skill enough he took his place in a boat's 
crew. Generally he bought, for potatoes, a share in the boat, so 
that he could take part in the trips for eggs and guano. He had 
then fulfilled his ambition to begin * work. * For the same reason 
every young man of ambition had a dog and a donkey and hoped to 
have a yoke of oxen. 

The dogs were never treated as pets, though they had names 
names which like those of their masters were common to many 
owners. * Knock' and ' Watch' were probably the commonest. 


There was only one 'Lancher': that belonged to Chief. Ken 
Rogers had a * Bruno,' Wilson Glass had 'Dinty,' George Glass 
had * Darby,' and several households included a hybrid species of 
sheep-dog known, quite unironically, as ' Query. ' The donkeys 
rarely had names beyond being classified as Somebody-or-other's 
Jack or Jenny, and they were all so much the same mixture of 
shaggy brown, black, and grey that we wondered how their 
owners distinguished them. Cats were not plentiful certainly 
not as plentiful as rats. The few we saw seemed all to be elderly 
tabbies known as Tibby. Though they lived more familiarly in 
the houses, they were treated with no more obvious kindness ; on 
the other hand, there was no conscious cruelty and we often 
heard a mother's voice shrilling to her children the highly moral 
precept: 'Don't cruelize the cat.' 

Most of the children's games were imitations of the work of 
their elders. The little girls played at housekeeping, though 
without dolls: at an early age they learned to knit, to card, and 
spin wool. The only toys I ever saw the boys playing with were 
miniature hand-made models of the local ox-carts. The model 
boats made by many of the young men were not intended as toys 
but as souvenirs for trade with visiting ships. Yet the boys had a 
happy time: they had cliffs to climb, surf to splash in, dinghies to 
row, and donkeys on which to gallop out to our wireless hut on 
Herald Point or down to the beach when the men were bringing 
boat-loads of drift-wood from other sides of the island. 

Wood was a precious commodity. It was needed for building 
boats, cottages, bullock-carts, and gates and as fuel under the 
cooking-pots. Firewood was often brought from the mountain, 
where a species of low, spreading tree known only as 'island tree' 
provided gnarled and twisted branches that burned well even 
when green. Such branches were used also as the knees of boats. 
Frequently a lone islander with a huge bundle of such sticks tied 
to his shoulders could be seen descending with rapid goat-leaps the 
steep mountainside. 

At other times a dinghy would be pulled round the promontory 
which in daily conversation loomed appropriately as the Big 


Point to a gap called Rookery Gulch, though the penguin rookery 
which had occasioned the name had long disappeared. 

Here drift-wood was washed ashore. It was a common occur- 
rence to hear that So-and-so was 'down fa* wood,' which meant 
that he had rowed round the Point: to go 'up fa* wood* meant, of 
course, to climb the mountain. When the boat returned in the 
afternoon, the boys would call out to one another: 'The dinghy is 
hup! ' Donkeys, tethered in readiness near the cottages, would 
be set off at a gallop for the beach, where their backs would be 
piled high with wood, precariously lashed with rope. In the 
event of an outsize boat-load, such as a large trunk from a distant 
forest, a yoke of oxen would be put into service to haul the dinghy 
up the beach, and the prize would be brought home by cart. 

These carts were valued possessions, owned only by a few. 
Even if a man had the bullocks, he might have to wait years for 
suitable drift-wood to make wheels, axle, shaft, and even a small 
body. The carts were often referred to as 'trains/ Once 
Andrew Swain, or 'Doe' as he was called, the fiddler who played 
for the dancing, was shown a picture of a railway train. He 
looked bewildered at first, then laughed knowingly. ' 'At ain't a 
train/ he declared. 'It ain't got no bullocks.' 

The men and the older boys appeared always to have work 
to do. In spite of the lack of enterprise in crop-growing, there 
were many local occupations. During the day the men were 
rarely seen near the cottages: they were 'spadin' ' or 'puttin' in' 
or 'cleanin' grass' from their patches, or they were fishing or 
boat-repairing or they were 'up' or 'down' for wood. They 
might even be manufacturing line with the spinning-jenny that 
had been salvaged from the ill-fated Italia and the use of which 


they had been taught by the late Andrea Repetto. Even on wet 
days, when they could do little out of doors, the men had a task 
awaiting them : with a jack-knife, a leather palm and needle, a roll 
of twine and some squares of hide, the head of the house would sit 
making moccasins for his family and the earnest suitor would do 
the same for his girl-friend. 


Such was the working week for the islander, while we tuned 
transmitters and sent out strange messages to a world that he 
hardly believed in, listened with bewildering intentness to faint 
sounds in reply and occasionally scrubbed floors and recharged 
batteries. His life appeared at least as purposeful to us as ours 
did to him. It was a life with hardships and enjoyments and a 
firm, if somewhat barren, ground for contentment. From his 
acceptance of it emerged a calm fatalism that found expression in 
a saying that we heard often on the lips of these villagers : 

Go day, come day, 
God bless Sunday. 

In that crude couplet was the bare but adequate philosophy of 
their lives. 


The Weekly Custom 

ON SUNDAY the islanders did no work. Yet it was in some ways 
the busiest day of all : the day of social intercourse. Its difference 
from the rest of the week was marked by abstention from all 
manual occupation, by the wearing of a different suit or dress (a 
'best' one not always a newer one) and by the substitution for 
the usual daily routine of a weekly one equally unvaried in 
pattern: in the 'mawnin" 'charch' and 'wisitin"; in the 
'hawf'noon' 'wisitin" and 'co't'n"; in the 'hevenin" 
'charch,' 'wisitin',' and 'coVnV The last-named courting 
was the solemn activity of the day: church-going was the enter- 

The little tin-roofed church had been filled every Sunday, since 
the arrival of the chaplain, with a prim and sabbath-faced congre- 
gation of islanders. It was possibly not the parson's fault that the 
people gave the impression of slinking self-consciously, even 
shamefacedly, into their seats when the bell rang like school* 
children facing the day's lessons. Inside, the men and women, 
separated: the men in their most uncomfortable clothes, 
clutching their caps, sat on one side of the aisle ; the women, with 
their hands conscientiously crossed in their laps but itching for the 
forbidden knitting-needles, sat on the other. From a pulpit that 



looked like a teacher's desk the minister delivered his lesson. 
During the singing most of the mouths moved obediently enough 
but little volume of sound issued. One or two people, such as 
Mrs Repetto and her daughter, Mary Swain, stood in the front 
row and sang in high-pitched, warbling voices that could be heard 
above all the others: they were the * swots' of the class. 

Enjoyment did not seem to be the keynote ; yet none of the 
women at least would voluntarily have missed a service. Every 
eye was noting meticulously the dress, expression, position, and 
demeanour of every other member of the congregation. This 
was the opportunity of storing the mind with those details that 
would enliven gossip for a week to follow. This was the chance 
of studying at close quarters, even if only out of the corner of an 
eye, the exposed frailties of one's neighbours. This was the 
occasion when the young men had time and freedom to stare at 
the young women and when the young women, from across the 
aisle, were able surreptitiously to observe the men while seeming 
to observe nothing. 

The greatest delight of church-going came after the service, 
when the released congregation assembled outside. Then the 
tongues began to wag, the women preened themselves in their 
best dresses, the young men strutted gawkily in their Sunday suits. 
This was the weekly festival of flaunting one's children and 
flouting one's neighbour. The scene was a patch of foot-worn 
grass where the roads and paths converged and the cottages edged 
away to leave an open space in front of the church. Here the 
girls clustered in groups, laughing and chattering, displaying their 
backs ; while the young men stood in a row against the wall of the 
churchyard almost sitting on it, but not quite, because of their 
best trousers and watched the backs of the girls. As the 
congregation slowly dispersed, groups of relatives, who had seen 
one another every day of the previous week, invited one another 
home for tea and gossip. 'Wisitin" was actively practised for 
the rest of the morning, as if people who worked side by side all 
the week had their only real opportunity of meeting on Sundays. 

Our own religious service, conducted by the same padre, was 


held at the station, which by now had as all good naval establish- 
ments have its quarter-deck, with a mast and yard-arm for 
flying the ensign, and its Sunday Divisions. Rig-of-the-day was 
uniform * Number Ones' in place of the multiform array of 
jerseys, sheepskin coats, and knitted caps that we wore on 
week-days. The service ended just in time for us to hurry to the 
store-roorn and draw our daily tot of rum the only alcoholic 
drink then allowed on the island. That ritual over, we followed 
the local custom of Sunday morning visiting among the families 
we knew. 

These visits, like all 'public' occasions in the village, were staid 
and formal affairs. On arriving at a cottage we found a roomful 
of women in rustling skirts and men in ill-fitting Sunday best 
sitting on boxes, side by side, around the walls, as if waiting 
for the appearance of some public performer. The hostess was 
always seated at the hearthside superintending the boiling of water 
for the tea of hospitality. The appearance of any of our expedi- 
tion was welcomed ; the woman of the house seized the oppor- 
tunity of displaying her familiarity with us, of putting us on show 
as if we were the 'entertainers' whose arrival seemed to be 
expected. Often, as we moved from one cottage to another in 
leisurely progress, we found that the same group of 'spectators' 
had hurried ahead of us to witness our next 'appearance/ We 
didn't know whether to feel like celebrities or freaks. 

The same repeated appearances were noticeable of the cups in 
which tea was offered to us. Few of the housewives possessed 
sufficient crockery to provide for more than two or three visitors ; 
and the children were kept busy on Sunday mornings running 
from cottage to cottage borrowing crocks so that a guest often 
found himself drinking from the same chipped mug as in the 
previous house he had visited. 

At these social assemblies I was frequently aware of a curious 
feature of the islanders' conversation: when they addressed us, or 
obviously intended us to be included in the talk, their speech 
once we had learnt the accent was perfectly intelligible; but 
when they exchanged remarks among themselves, not intended 


for our attention, they relapsed into a dialect that was incompre- 
hensible. This was particularly noticeable when a child or young 
girl from a neighbouring cottage came with a message or request: 
over the half-door she would engage in dialogue with the mistress 
of the house, who replied from the hearth in a shrill, raised voice, 
sometimes in scolding tones and always in what seemed a foreign 
language. Perhaps we were not intended to hear the substance 
of these exchanges. 

Another strange feature of these visits was the tacit under- 
standing almost a kind of telepathy by which, even at a 
moment when the conversation seemed to be at its liveliest, all 
the visitors would suddenly, without any previous indication by 
word or gesture, rise and leave. There was no exchange of 
good-byes. In an instant, by some common impulse, everyone 
stood up and quietly walked out. The hostess, completely un- 
concerned, bent over her pots or poked the fire. That was 
how visits by the islanders always ended. 

On Sunday afternoons the centre of activity moved farther 
afield. If the weather permitted and it needed a hurricane or a 
downpour to keep the island men indoors the settlement was 
empty while its inhabitants walked 'hout.' The cliff- top above 
the beaches the 'bank,' as it was called became the local 
boulevard, where village society paraded for its own inspection. 
The husbands walked beside their wives as far as Herald Point, 
where the abyss of Hottentot Gulch compelled them to reverse 
their solemn promenade. The little girls looked picturesque in 
their sun-bonnets, or 'kappies,' their sashes, billowing dresses, 
and white stockings; the little boys looked pain-wracked as they 
walked with their hands in empty 'best' pockets, forbidden even 
to throw pebbles into the surf. The young men acknowledged 
to be taken' walked stiffly beside their brides-to-be. Those 
whose fate was still to be sealed dawdled in affected nonchalance 
near a cluster of bright dresses. In a row along the bank, like 
sea-gulls along a breakwater, sat the unengaged girls, passing 
chatter to and fro like a bag of sweets, their impudent backs 
turned on their would-be suitors. On an island where the 


number of eligible young men exceeded the number of marriage- 
able young women, the latter could afford a feeling of security. 
Their laughter had a note of care-free assurance missing from the 
occasional guffaws of their admirers. 

The Tristan girls mature young and courting begins at an early 
age. Engagements, however, often have to be long, until the 
future husband has enough wood to build a house and enough 
sheep and cattle to support a family. There may be great rivalry 
for the hand of a favourite girl, the most sought-after being 
generally not the prettiest but the one whose father can offer the 
biggest dowry. 

During the week courting was conducted in the evenings. A 
young man trying to win a girl would visit her home after his day's 
work; he would walk straight into the house, where the whole 
family was gathered round the open hearth ; he would find a seat 
on a box and join in the conversation. Nobody would take much 
notice of him, least of all the girl. If she was a coveted prize, 
there might be several suitors sitting in the room side by side, 
night after night, on the best of terms with one another. All of 
them would bring presents and as a rule all the presents would 
be accepted, so that competition was maintained. When a girl 
allowed a lover to make a pair of moccasins for her, she was 
favouring him. When she knitted him, in return, a pair of socks 
he could estimate his chances by the number of rings of 'marking* 
wool round the tops: if there were four such 'marks* of affection, 
he knew he was the favourite. Acceptance was signified when 
she invited him to bring her his clothes to wash. After that they 
would appear openly as an engaged couple, walking together on 
Sunday afternoons . There was even a special part of the common 
near the bank-top which was, by general understanding, reserved 
for the engaged: others did not walk there on that day. 

Naturally the presence of naval ratings on the island was of 
great interest to the girls. At first they were distressingly shy, 
and oddly enough it was with the young men that we first became 
friends. If one of us approached the girls, they would rise like 
birds from their perch, to settle again farther along the bank. 


Only after many Sundays did we win their confidence. The 
younger ones were less diffident than their elder sisters. Tom- 
boyish Marie was more easily addressed than her sister Asturias 
Ann, one of the two prettiest and plumpest girls on the island. 
Emily, the other favourite, still hid her vivacity in public behind 
a provocative bashfulness. Ida looked saucy, but said nothing. 
Isobel, conscious of a figure more slender than was common 
among the village girls, practised aloofness for a while, studying 
how to be graceful in retreat. Even after we knew them well, 
the girls would display out of doors a shyness that they dropped 
when visited at home. 

The young men, so far from resenting any attentions we paid to 
the girls, apparently welcomed them and eagerly forwarded our 
advances. They seemed to take our interest as a compliment to 
themselves and were prepared naively to follow our choices: if 
we thought a girl attractive, they concluded she must be so. 
We were careful, however, to keep clear of the ' engaged ' 

The greater part of Sunday afternoon was given to this serious 
business of 'co't'nV It was early evening when the single 
church-bell again loosed on the wind its tremulous call, like the 
distant tinkle of a sheep-bell. Obediently the promenaders 
turned like scattered sheep and converged on the church, the 
bright dresses of the girls fluttering like banners to the fore. 

After evensong a few of the elders read their Bibles for an hour 
or less, not so much from devotion as to mark their superiority 
over the greater number who couldn't read their Bibles. Most 
of the women went to bed as soon as the evening meal was cleared 
away, being at a loss what else to do when knitting was forbidden. 
The men smoked for a while, then followed, seeking the simplest 
excuse for removing clothes in which they could neither work nor 
lounge at ease. 


The Lamp of Learning 

CLOSELY associated with the church on Tristan was the school. 
In the past the ministers had always instituted an elementary 
education for the children. In the long periods when there was 
no minister, this had been continued desultorily by the more 
literate of the elders. Education was consequently uneven 
among the villagers, the children of Agnes Rogers, Bob Glass, 
and Mrs Repetto having been taught more than the others. 

During our stay the school was revived under the direction of 
the chaplain, and several of our party were enrolled as assistant 
teachers. Lessons now took place in a vacant room at the 
station; the old school-house behind the church, built as the 
people would say 'in the time of Father Rogers,' had passed from 
school-house to council chamber and dance-hall and finally into 
disuse. The school brought us into close acquaintance with the 
'lads of the willage/ especially the ten-to-fourteen-year-old ones, 
who formed a homogeneous band which seemed rarely to split 
into factions. The leading spirit was Edwin Glass, aged about 
fourteen, known by nickname sometimes as 'Cabby, 5 sometimes 



as * Spike.' He was a merry-grinning, wiry, black-eyed boy, 
just beginning to shoot in height, so that his white trousers, once 
ankle-length, were now little more than knee-length and being 
worn, in imitation of ours, outside his socks gave him a Huckle- 
berry Finn appearance. Some visitor or missionary had given 
him a diminutive, red and black quartered, school cap, which 
seemed never to leave the back of his head. 

His younger brother Joseph, about twelve years old, was as 
tough and keen as a whip. There was a younger brother still, 
Conrad, whom Joseph introduced to me: 

'This 'yah's my buddy Conrad. Together, we is name' 
awfter Joseph Conrad.' 

I stared. 

At was a ship which call 'yah/ Joseph explained. 

Others of this regular band were Basil Lavarello, insultingly 
called *Bawboon J by the rest; Gilbert Lavarello, of blond, 
Scandinavian colouring; Dennis Green, of freckled face, reddish 
hair, and pale skin; Hubert Green, a tall, lugubrious boy known 
either as * Nero ? or as 'Teachus, J and 'Barnett' Repetto, whose full 
Christian names were Bernard Dominic Andrea. Followers, of a 
slightly younger generation but equally ready to join in the wildest 
escapades, were Emily's two brothers, Donald and Piers Hagan; 
Benjy Green, aged six ; and a whole tribe of bare-legged urchins 
with English, Italian, or Norwegian names the last, such as 
Lars and Soggnaes, commemorating the expedition of Norwegian 
scientists to Tristan in 1937. The younger boys were small, 
thin, and frail-looking, but the older ones were already developing 
the tall, muscular bodies common among the men. 

Associated with this juvenile brigade in mental rather than 
chronological age was Tom Swain, familiar to station and settle- 
ment as 'Sack.' At first meeting 'Sack 3 had appeared to us a 
particularly friendly and talkative youth, always ready to laugh 
at a joke that he felt he ought to understand, full of half-comical 
innuendoes, quick to copy our expressions and to pretend a know- 
ledge of our affairs. It was some time before we realized that, in 
spite of his youthful appearance and the villagers' treatment of 


him as a 'lad,' he was actually a man of forty. He was not 
exactly stupid: he was adept enough at boat-pulling, fishing, and 
all the other island occupations ; but he had the mind of a boy, 
and even his body was slight and under-developed by Tristan 

The older youths, from fourteen upwards, considered them- 
selves too nearly men to join in the excited, boastful argu- 
mentative, scoffing conversations and the racing, pebble- 
throwing, rock-climbing, surf- wading activities of the mere boys. 
But they were eager to take advantage of the school and turned up 
punctually with their newly issued pencils and writing-books. 
Even Ken Rogers and his brothers, some of them married, Wilson 
Glass, and other relatively educated young men came voluntarily 
to add to their knowledge. Agnes in particular encouraged her 
children to learn and Kenneth had a thirst for education. A few 
of the girls, notably Ken's sisters, Asturias and Marie, shared this 
desire, but most of the girls were content with illiteracy. 
Although Chief announced, at the doctor's bidding, that school 
was compulsory for girls as well as boys under the age of fourteen, 
they did not attend regularly. Of those who came the motives 
were questionable : the main desire was to see and be seen by the 
teachers and to be the centre of a new kind of social gathering 
from which parents and elderly female relatives were excluded. 

Most of the children learned fairly quickly once they overcame 
the initial shyness imposed by the strange classroom. They 
studied elementary arithmetic and how to read and write. The 
biggest obstacle was that the English they were being taught to 
read and write was so different from the language they spoke. 
It was easy enough to show how to write the letter *v' ; the 
problem was to teach its purpose, since it was never used in local 
speech. When it came at the beginning of a word the islanders 
always pronounced it as a 'w/ as in 'winegar,' 'willage,' and 
'Wictoria.* When it occurred in the middle of a word, they 
turned it into a 'b/ as in 'hobber' for 'over.' Hlogically they 
pretended that they could not render the *w' sound, otherwise so 
popular, in the middle of 'flower' or 'flour/ which consequently 


became 'flobba/ Similar problems met us with the vowel sound 
c er* and the consonant *th.' The Islanders said 'charch' for 
'church,' 'Harbutt' for 'Herbert/ 'parple' for 'purple'; and 
'barfday' for 'birthday/ 'Marfa' for 'Martha/ 'Roof for 'Ruth/ 
Lessons in spelling helped to correct some of these mistakes such 
as the use of 'akse' for 'ask' and the promiscuous scattering of 
e hV in words such as 'hanimals' and phrases such as * heating 
heggs and happles. ' 

To correct local grammar w r ould have been as difficult as it 
would have been pointless. Some of the oddities gave added 
vigour to the speech. Double and triple negatives were used to 
pile up emphasis. Stranger to us was a curious kind of double 
positive : 

* Sometimes he allus go fishinV 

'Look at those boys firing (throwing) pebbles. That they 
allus do sometimes/ 

The auxiliary verb 'to do' was overworked, sometimes with 
comical effect. It solved all problems of past tense. Not only 
did we hear 'I done went/ 'I done finish my spiimin" ; we also 
heard such dialogues as this : 

' Wilson, is you done all you' wark?' 

4 No, I ain't no done done no wark.' 

In their everyday speech the islanders used many nautical 
words. The men were always 'hands.' String was invariably 
'line* and was measured In fathoms. The words 'left' and 
'right* were redundant on Tristan. The points of the compass 
were always in mind and the Islander spoke naturally of the north 
or south wall of a room or even end of a table. To walk through 
the village towards Big Beach was to 'take the heast'ard'; to 
walk towards the Patches was to 'take the west'ard.* 

At its best the local speech was vivid and vital. It lent itself to 
Imagery. A person chilled by the cold was 'as blue as dimin' ; 
a little boy who had eaten his fill was 'done round out like a 
punkin' (pumpkin). To someone whose hair had been tousled 
by the wind a girl might say: 'You' hair is all done root up. 
You look like you bin haul' t'rough a bush backwa'ds. ' Perhaps 


the most colourful example was the description of wind-blown 
waves as 'feather-white willies.' 

The islanders were not without imagination. They had a 
fondness for 'spinnin' yarns' and describing scenes. The girls 
were attracted by reading: the boys had a stronger desire to write. 
Sometimes in the evenings at David Hagan's house I would help 
Emily with her 'laminV She could print a round, clear hand 
fairly quickly and spell better than many, but had not the patience 
to develop a cursive handwriting. At first this coaching was an 
amusing game to her, an excuse for us to sit close together at the 
table. The bird-oil lamp shone on her face as she bowed it 
unnecessarily low over the paper; the soot from the lamp 
blackened her nostrils ; her hand continually needed the guidance 
of mine in forming its 'hays' and 'hesses.' But she tired quickly 
of a game which required stillness and concentration without 
feeding her imagination. 

Reading, on the other hand, could hold her entranced for an 
hour on end which was a long time for Emily. It was a new 
and satisfying experience. Simple stories of which an English 
child has exhausted the charm at five years old could enthral her at 
eighteen. 'Cinderella' held its glamour after several readings. 
She was not interested in hearing it read aloud by someone else: 
that was merely like listening to a yarn spun ; any of the islanders 
could provide that. She had to read the story herself, her full 
lips forming each word, as her forefinger traced its course, and 
her voice becoming a rich, wonder-laden whisper as the story 
emerged sometimes so slowly from the page. This was a 
new magic we had brought into the lives of the young people. 


A New Grave 

I STILL paid regular visits, usually with 'Ginger/ to the home of 
Bob Glass, where we delivered our 'washing' into the coarse but 
capable hands of his wife Charlotte . We became familiar visitors 
during the long evenings, when old Bob revealed more and more 
astonishing facts about his life in many parts of the world. 

From his seat of authority on the wooden sofa he would issue 
orders in a quavering but peremptory tone to his wife : 

*Put some more wood on 'at fire, Shawlutt. Set the pawt on, 
woman, and make the gen'lmen a drink. ' 

Occasionally he would let his stick lie idle between his knees 
while he condescended to stretch out his bony wrists to hold a 
skein of wool for his wife to roll into a ball ready for knitting. 
It seemed an incongruously domestic and familiar action. 

His voice was soft and weak, with a curious lilt, a half- 
American drawl. Age had mitigated in it some of the harsh 
fullness of the island speech, subduing it to a melodious drone, in 
which he meandered interminably. From time to time, while 
talking, he would bring the gaze of his round, protruding eyes 

1 06 


into line with one's face and hold it there, like the revealing but 
unseeing beam of a ship's searchlight. The habit was discon- 
certing, until one realized that he was looking beyond one at the 
pictures in his memory or at the mere vacancy of an old man's 
dream. When he swung his stare away again, one could almost 
see the beam of it whisked across the furniture of the room and 
out through the window. 

Of his thoughts, of his character, of what passed if anything 
within his mind, we knew nothing. We could only make 
guesses on the evidence of the stories he told of his own experi- 
ence. Even these stories were never told directly: they seemed 
to come up inevitably, in an ever-recurring rota, like the steps on 
a mill-wheel. We could not honestly claim to hold conversa- 
tions with Bob Glass, we merely 'listened in' while he ruminated 

By now we knew his history well. At the age of eighteen he 
had left the island and gone to South Africa. There he had 
worked at a candle factory in Cape Town. He had left it to join 
the whaling schooner Swallow, of which his uncle was skipper. 
From him he had gained his ' edication. ' He had made two trips, 
the first as 'boatsteerer/ the second as third mate. Later he had 
joined an American barque, the Wild Rose, on a sealing expedition 
to Gough Island the very ship that had called at Tristan and 
taken away the wrecked shipmates of Gaetano Lavarello, the ship 
after which the island long-boat was named. He had been to 
England and several times to America. He had returned to the 
Cape and had been working there at the time of what he inveter- 
ately called the 'Bluebonnet' plague as if it had been a particu- 
larly vexing epidemic in feminine fashions. During the Boer 
War he had served as one of Kitchener's Scouts. Afterwards he 
had tried diamond-mining and farming in the Orange Free State 
but had given them up to return at the age of thirty-four to 
Tristan, bringing with him his Irish wife Elizabeth and five 
children. After three years on Tristan and the birth of her 
eighth child, Elizabeth had died and Bob had married the island- 
born Charlotte a daughter of Old Sam Swain. 


He had never again left the Island; and yet there had been 
disillusion in his staying there. He had returned full of plans for 
using the island boats as whale-boats and so enriching the settle- 
ment with an industry in blubber oil. The chronicle of that 
endeavour, as he had already told it to us, was both amusing and 
pathetic. Perhaps it was this failure that had fixed his thoughts 
so firmly in the past and away from his native island. His talk 
was always of the 'houtside warl*/ especially of the South Africa 
of his fighting days. He said once: 

*Some folks don't loik wars. But when Oi was foighting the 
Boers, 'at was the happiest toime of my loife! ' 

When asked if he would like to leave the island again, he 
replied, gently, honestly, but with a resigned smile: 

4 Yaas, but it's too late now. I'se got too howld to go/ 

At the time when we listened to Bob Glass's ruminations, he 
had acquired a certain wistful dignity. Yet there remained some- 
thing elusive about him, even about the features of his face. I 
believe he had a wispy, white moustache: but, even at the time of 
knowing him, I was never quite sure. Apart from the staring 
eyes and something about his stance that distinguished him from 
the other village patriarchs, I always forgot what he looked like, 
even in the interval of a few days. It was as if he were not quite 
real, like a shadow or a silhouette. Every time that he greeted 
us anew at the low doorway of his cottage, there had to be a 
rapid process of identification and recognition: 'Ah yes, that's 
Bob! 1*11 remember him now/ But I never did. 

In the end I never had the chance to. During the week of his 
seventieth birthday Bob Glass died. 

Seventy years was not a long life by Tristan standards, but in 
Bob's case it seemed to have been longer than usual. In the last 
days of his illness he received visitors in the tiny bedroom which 
was nothing more than a dark corner of the living-room shut off 
by a wooden partition. Light entered it only through a small 
opening cut high up in the partition. To the gloom of that box- 
like compartment, where he lay somewhere on a wooden bunk, 


my eyes never became accustomed, so that he seemed at the end 
nothing but a voice, growing daily weaker, talking still of the past 
and issuing out of obscurity. It was as if the old man had been 
discarded and put away in a cupboard, where he still protested 
feebly against his fate. 

On the day of his funeral his coffin was carried all around the 
settlement by a little cortege of villagers and finally buried in the 
little cemetery where, not very long before, he had pointed out 
to us his 'grandad's* grave and retold for the last time the pranks 
of his boyhood, while the flax in the neighbouring patch had 
rattled like dry bones in the blighting wind. 

Now the flax, in all the gardens, was a dark fire of bloom. 
Children playing near the graveyard pointed to a new turf mound 
and some even called it 'grandad's' ; but there was no headstone 
from which to prise the leaded letters for pellets not even a 
little wooden cross to steal and use as a sword. 

On my first visit to Charlotte's such it had become I became 
aware at once of change. Furniture had been rearranged and the 
whole cottage had a fresh, rejuvenated appearance. So far from 
the constraint of grief, there was a sense of release, a new, 
unrestricted spontaneity. It seemed permissible now to raise 
one's voice in that room where, in Bob Glass's company, con- 
versation had always been conducted with incongruous formality. 
Charlotte revealed, beneath her bovine inexpressiveness, an 
unsuspected wry humour and a shrewd eye for the foibles of her 
neighbours. Her snort of high-pitched laughter often startled 
the walls of that cottage where old Bob had welcomed guests 
with his unfailing, threadbare dignity. 

The truth is that it was an undeniable relief to be free, in that 
house, of his vaguely disturbing presence. Charlotte was a 
creature at once more earthly and more earthy, with a local 
wisdom closely related to the black, volcanic soil of the island. 
She resembled in some ways a certain old she-goat that we had 
heard about from the islanders : having caused damage to village 
gardens and flax beds, the goat had been taken by several men in a 


boat round the Bluff and put ashore on the beach called Anchor- 
stock on the western side of the island. The next day men 
working at their potato patches were amazed to see her returning 
purposefully along the road to the village, scornfully ignoring the 
stares of the men who had been responsible for her having to 
climb at her age! the steep, trackless sides of the Bluff. 

Charlotte had about her since her husband's death that same 
purposeful and impenitent look as the old she-goat which had 
never again been banished from the settlement. Soon the 
islanders came to regard her in the same light, as one for whom 
exceptions had to be made even to the extent of letting her 
knock down the walls of propriety and wilfully uproot the 
flowers of custom. Her widowhood had set her up in a position 
of independence in the village such as Tristan women seldom 
knew. Her life centred now, with possessive devotion, on her 
docile son Wilson: him she ruled as despotically as her weak and 
aged husband had ruled her, permitting him to raise his voice only 
when addressing his old dog, 'Dinty.' 


Holding the Fort 

WHEN we had left Simonstown at the start of our exile, we had 
been told that our stay on Tristan would be short three to six 
months. A more permanent staff, married men accompanied by 
their wives, would be coming to relieve us. We had been 
ordered to 'hold the fort' until their arrival. The phrase had 
conjured up mental pictures of ourselves as the meagre garrison 
of a beleaguered outpost. Instead we found ourselves in the 
most peaceful of backwaters, unstirred by the tide of war. 
Except for radio broadcasts we should have known nothing about 
the world struggle that was the occasion for our presence on the 
island. It was as if we had been dropped out of the conflict, lost 
or forgotten. And yet, if one *side' had mislaid us, there was 
always the possibility that the other would find us. An enemy 
submarine might surface in view of the settlement and send a 
landing-party to investigate. 

The thought did not occur to us often, but the contingency had 
to be considered. The station consisted of low wooden 
buildings, masked to some extent from the sea. At night the 



windows were blacked out. The faint glimmers of light from 
the cottage lamps were almost invisible. But in the day-time 
there were the aerial masts and the ensign to proclaim the 
outpost. Our entire armament was a few machine-guns and 
revolvers and enough rifles to equip the station personnel and 
some of the able-bodied islanders. 

Occasionally an * alarm 5 was practised. Arms were issued, 
the islanders * evacuated* to the upper reach of Hottentot Gulch 
and certain of the radio staff disappeared to an 'emergency' 
station hidden among hill slopes. The whole practice was 
enjoyed as a kind of game and the excited hubbub of voices from 
the gulch echoed all over the settlement shelf. A number of the 
island men were organized into a local militia the Tristan 
Defence Volunteers. They were taught to handle rifles. Some- 
times a competition * shoot' was held between the Navy and the 
T.D.V. : such an event was a local sports day. The only use of a 
revolver was by the operator on duty at the hut on Herald Point: 
during a slow afternoon watch he would sometimes relieve the 
tedium by shooting at flies on the wall or through the open door 
hatch at a can on the fence outside. 

Life at the station was a quiet, monotonous routine. We slept 
in one wooden building, we ate in another. The doctor and the 
padre lived on the other side of the grass rectangle of * quarter- 
deck/ The store-keeper spent his days in a dark interior of his 
own; Bill the cook built himself a bakery adjoining the galley, to 
enlarge his domain; Jock the stoker lived with oil-cans and cotton 
waste in the engine-room, from which came the power to operate 
the transmitters and receivers and to supply light to the station; 
the 'met/ staff cultivated mysteries in their own sanctum; and in 
the wireless-telegraphy room the operators tapped morse keys 
and turned dials. 

Since the departure of the soldiers there had been a few other 
changes in personnel. The store-keeper and the leading tele- 
graphist, who had come with the advance-party, had been 
relieved. We had some extra N.C.O.s, a second cook, and six 
more operators. The circle round the mess-table had become 


slightly bigger, but the core of the original draft remained, and 
the newcomers could not be strangers for long in so limited a 

By its nature our work cut us off from the islanders. Through 
the language of telegraphy we communicated with operators in 
distant shore stations and occasionally in ships. We were in 
regular touch with Simonstown, and at the end of an official 
* routine' transmission we were allowed by a special concession 
made to us in consideration of the loneliness of our position to 
hold private conversation, in morse, with the telegraphists there. 
We came to know their names and to have a vicarious familiarity 
with them 'over the air.' We even learned to recognize the 
distinctive morse hands of several of them, so that from the speed 
and rhythm of a signal we could say; 'So-and-so's on to-night.' 
It is amazing how personal an instrument a morse key can become 
to the ear of an intent listener: it can transmit friendliness, cold- 
ness, sarcasm, exasperation, or ribald amusement. This 'tone' 
was quite independent of the subject-matter of messages, since all 
our traffic was in code. 

Radio was our link with the outer world. It even brought us a 
sort of remote-controlled acquaintance with the 'sparkers' on 
other islands in the South Atlantic. When the time came to 
make a routine call to Simonstown, there would be a friendly 
rivalry between us and the operators on St Helena and the Falk- 
land Islands to establish communication first. Our call signs 
had the familiarity of nicknames. Sometimes it seemed that we 
had a closer relation with those unseen fellow key-tappers than 
with our hosts on the island. 

In addition to the main wireless-telegraphy office there was the 
receiving hut on the Point. It was just big enough to house an 
operator's bench with its equipment, a chair for the operator on 
duty, and a bunk for the keeper of the middle watch, who would 
take over at midnight. This tiny structure had become a kind of 
masthead position, a crow's nest from which to survey the daily 
round of activity on the island, the passage of the seasons, and the 
infinite variations of the sea. * Hold the fort, ' we had been told ; 


and at first sight, the hut, standing aloof from the main buildings 
of the station, a square, wooden box with a window in each wall, 
raised on short stilts so that its floor was clear of the ground, sur- 
rounded by a stockade to keep marauding animals away from the 
aerial bases, had actually had the air of a little fortress. At least 
it w^as a kind of refuge. Those of us who worked in it had a 
feeling of ownership: of all the buildings on the island this one 
was most peculiarly our own. To it we could withdraw from too 
close a proximity with our fellows at the station or from too 
pressing a familiarity of friends in the village. Its smallness made 
it inevitably private; and curiously enough, in that closed com- 
pany of people on that isolated island, there were times when 
privacy seemed a rare and desirable thing. 

Among the islanders 'the hut on the Point' was always an 
object of curiosity. Its purpose they accepted, without compre- 
hension but without question. When told that messages from 
far away were * caught' by the wires above and carried down to 
the operator's 'listening box,' wilich enabled him to hear and 
understand them, they merely smiled, glancing up at the wires. 
They were too polite to contradict or laugh outright. They 
chose rather to accept the hut as a convenient social pivot. Its 
situation, separate from the rest of the station and sufficiently far 
from the village, gave it that value. They would not have visited 
our mess or the engine-room or the transmitting-room, except on 
a definite errand. But the Point was just a comfortable distance 
for a walk, and there was the reassurance that only one or at the 
most two of us would be there. 

On Sunday afternoons especially the hut became a focus. 
Couples and families strolled past and leered in through the door 
at the telegraphist on watch. Sometimes they stepped inside to 
pass the time of day, and sat uncomfortably for a few minutes on 
the bunk, accepting a fill of tobacco or a cup of tea: it fascinated 
them to watch the electric kettle boil. The 'gals' always chose 
a portion of the cliff-top immediately in front of the hut for 
their Sunday afternoon perch, while the young men of the 
village dawdled in their vicinity. The Point was also the most 


convenient place from which to watch the boats returning from 
Nightingale or Inaccessible ; and so it became the scene for the 
local rodeo, when the boys rode out on their donkeys to watch 
the progress of the boats and amused themselves by galloping 
round and round the hut. 


Work in the Sun 

THE SUMMER days followed one another with busy haste, per- 
spiring gently. The men had many seasonal tasks to finish before 
the winter winds set in again. The fishing dinghies had to be put 
in order: sails had to be stitched and the boats painted and 
repaired, even new ones built. Some men climbed the moun- 
tainside to catch young s mollies/ which, cooked in their own fat, 
were a favourite delicacy. Others were reboarding their houses 
against winter draughts and making new spinning-wheels for their 
womenfolk. The women themselves were making new dresses 
for Easter, and all of them were cleaning their homes in readiness 
for the holiday at that season, which would last a week and during 
which all work would be forbidden. 

Even Paddy Rogers, who was by nature far from industrious 
and who had been content for two years to live, with his wife and 
two children, in a portion of his father's cottage, at last began 
work aided by other * hands' on a house of his own. In the 
early stages of construction it looked just like another sheep-pen, 
and it seemed a long time before that resemblance began to be 



(Willy Lavarello) 



Marie knits as she rides, carrying a hoe and using her feet to urge the donkey. 
Beyond hillpiece in the background lie the Potato Patches. The 'road' passes 
between hillpiece and mountain on the left. The cliffs on the right fall to 

the sea. 


on the left the mountain, on the right and in the distance the sea. Beyond 
the first group of patches lies Big Sandy Gulch. 

.v - c^^ 


2. Women 'puttin' in' at the Patches. 


They are used for carrying loads but not for drawing carts. The rope halter 
about the neck is the only harness used. 


From the black and yellow head ' tossels * the islanders make 

decor ative table mats. 


Chrissy Swain also c had hands in/ to assist him in renewing the 
roof of his cottage, damaged by last winter's weather. First, 
new * principals' and rafters were inserted, then the roof was 
rethatched fore and aft with sheaves of tussock-grass. 

It was customary for an islander, when faced with any major 
undertaking such as this, to 'call 5 as many of his friends and 
neighbours as he needed to help him. In payment for their 
services they would be fed at his table until the work was 
finished. Sometimes on the last evening, when the job was 
completed, a special banquet would be provided for them, at 
which a huge pumpkin pie would supplement the usual roast 
potatoes and potato-cakes. 

Naturally the * hands' were quicker to answer the call of a 
neighbour who saw to it that they were well fed in his employ. 
Work on Paddy's house proceeded slowly: Chrissy 's roof was 
soon finished. At first the sheaves and the newly cut sods of 
turf with which the ridge at the top was sealed had a raw, green 
appearance among the silvery thatch of the neighbouring cot* 
tages ; but a few weeks of sunshine bleached them to the uniform 
drab shade. Paddy's house, on the other hand, still looked like a 
sheep-pen without a gate when, with the rest of the community, 
he was required to take part in the main annual event, the potato 

At this important time it was usual for the men to spend the 
whole day at the Potato Patches. They would vie with one 
another in rising at an absurdly early hour, many sleeping in their 
clothes so that they were ready at the first thinning of darkness 
to get up, saddle their waiting donkeys, and arrive at the scene 
of the day's activity well before daylight. There they would 
have to wait an hour or more in the chilly dawn, sitting on 
boulders, smoking their pipes on empty stomachs, until it was 
light enough for them to start work. The islander who did 
not arrive at the Patches until daybreak was loudly chaffed as a 
lie-abed and asked if he had found one of 'them young gals' to 
sleep with. 

Even the women laid aside their knitting to join in the great 


task of lifting the potatoes. About midday they could be seen 
going along the road to the Patches, some riding donkeys, on 
which thev perched side-saddle with babies in their arms, tins of 
baked potatoes and pots of tea slung across the animals* necks. 
A long train of children and dogs walked behind. In our off- 
watch periods we could not refrain from following. 

The road was a rocky one that dipped steeply down into two 
gulches and wound round many large boulders on its way to the 
end of the plateau, where the Patches were situated. At the far 
side of the second gulch known, but without known reason, as 
Knock Follv Gulch the road was barred by two walls of stone 
supporting a gate made from crooked branches of 'island tree.* 
This flimsv barricade, helped by the natural barrier of the gulch, 
kept the islanders' cattle and sheep either ' blocked out' or 
4 blocked home/ as the wish might be. 

Beyond the gate the road passed through a high, green pass 
between the mountainside and two outlying cones called Hill- 
piece and Burnt Hill. This pass was known as the Valley or, 
in local parlance, the 'Walley.' Here grazed the 'tame* cattle 
and the bullocks and donkeys not in service. The 'wild 3 cattle 
were kept on another part of the island. The road was littered 
with dung, and in the warm hours the heady smell of cattle's 
breath hung in the air. The sheep kept to the higher slopes, 
terraced with their narrow foot-tracks: their cries carried plain- 
tively from the distance. 

The Valley gave access to a plain, about half a mile wide and a 
mile long, lying between the mountain and the sea. It was really 
jest an extension of the grassy ledge on which the settlement 
stood. Here the island men cultivated their potatoes in small 
* patches' or fields, each of which was private property and 
marked out as such by a low wall of stones. Even some adjacent 
patches had their separate walls, with a two-foot lane of grass 
between, to avoid the troublesome issue of party walls. Grazing 
land was held in common, but when any man enclosed a portion 
it became his so long as he cultivated it and kept the wall in 
repair. If it was allowed to fall into disuse or disrepair it 


reverted to the community. About property rights the Islanders 
were almost fierce ; and a family that neglected to till and tend its 
patches would be allowed to starve in consequence or made to 
pay a high price in material possessions for the potatoes it needed 
from its neighbours. 

The crop was never a really good one, since the men never 
changed the seed and rarely changed the ground. At one time 
they had been in the habit of using seaweed as manure, but had 
found that its constant use hardened the soil; now they used 
guano and sheep dung which they obtained by the simple, callous 
practice of penning the sheep for days on end in the tiny paddocks 
or kraals about the village. 

During the harvest season the Patches became a scene of much 
animation. As soon as the women arrived there, they would 
prepare a midday meal most of the men having had no break- 
fast and then remain for the rest of the day to help with the 
gathering of the potatoes that had been dug. To a visitor arriving 
on the scene in the afternoon it appeared that the whole popula- 
tion, men, women, children, dogs, and donkeys, had migrated 
to this plain. 

At one's approach a mongrel sheep-dog would leap up on to 
a wall, ears erect and body quivering with alertness, to bark 
ferociously; with equal suddenness it would lose interest and 
jump down to continue snuffling in the field comers, thrusting its 
nose into the interstices of the stones and snorting impotently at 
the huge rats that unconcernedly kept house within the loose- 
piled walls. 

In a grass lane between two patches an ox-cart rested, as if in 
ironic comment on so much activity of men and dogs, its single 
long shaft like a crutch for its old bones, its solid, rough-hewn 
wheels buried to the axle in grass, looking as if it had found its 
last resting-place, where decay would come to it slowly with the 
passage of the seasons. Yet, at the end of the day, the cart, laden 
with the harvest, would be lurching homeward. 

Near by, a pair of oxen, unhitched from the cart but still 
imprisoned by the heavy wooden yoke to prevent them from 


straying, stood patiently, occasionally lowering their heads to- 
gether, in their creaking collar, to munch the grass. 

The men dug and the women and children collected and stored 
in bags until evening. The light was fading before the family 
processions began to make their way, like caravans of tired 
pilgrims, back along the road to the village. Where there was 
only one donkey to a family, it w r as ridden by the man, sitting 
well back on the animal's haunches in a clumsy saddle made of 
wood, straw, and canvas, his long legs dangling on either side, his 
feet in the dust, so that sometimes he appeared to be walking. 

The slow-stepping bullocks, guided from in front by boys with 
long whips, drew the carts. Where the road dipped down into 
the gulch they would tense their forelegs, lowering their hind 
quarters for a half-slithering descent, restrained by the long- 
drawn cries of the teamsters Yo-ho-ho-o-oh, now! ' Then, as 
the whip cut cruelly across their noses, they would throw their 
massive shoulders forward in the yoke, heads lowered, straining 
up the other side of the gulch. 

Strung out behind were the women and children, carrying 
tools and utensils and accompanied by the inevitable train of dogs. 

This harvest lasted several weeks and was the climax of the 
year's work. While we were on the island the Village Council 
reported that the year's crop had been about four thousand five 
hundred bushels. Even while the last potatoes were being dug, 
many of the men were busy * cleaning grass' from their patches to 
prepare them for next year's sowing. But before the summer 
ended there was to be another and very different harvest. 


Love in the Shade 

ONCE A YEAR, in March, took place an event that was a kind of 
holiday outing for the people of Tristan: this was the trip to 
Sandy Point, on the south-eastern side of the island, to pick the 
apples in the orchards there. It was the only regular occasion on 
which the women and girls accompanied the men in the boats. 
This year they were accompanied too by most of the naval 

The journey was about twelve miles by sea. I occupied my 
now customary place in the Wild Rose. Robert Lavarello was 
again at the tiller and David Hagan pulling the bow oar. Emily 
crouched in the stem-sheets, among a cluster of other girls with 
men's coats thrown over their heads and shoulders to shield them 
from the spray. The whole party was in a holiday mood. We 
steered close in and I had my first view at close quarters of the 
rugged mountain walls of the east coast, which had been our 
first glimpse of the island six months previously. As we rounded 
Big Point, where the settlement plateau came to an end, the 
rollers roared hoarsely as they were ripped apart by the rocks. 



High above the surf was visible the appropriately named Ugly 
Road, by which the island men sometimes made their way on foot, 
when the wind permitted, round the Point to the eastern beaches 
for drift-w T ood. On this day a dog which had followed us from 
the village passed carefully along the narrow ledge, looking like an 
insect crawling on the face of the wall. Making its way down to 
the beach, it ran barking joyfully at the boats, sometimes driven 
into the surf by the bulging rock-face behind the beach. High 
up on the cliffs we could see the white 'mollies' sitting in green 

The wind w r as head-on to us and the men had a hard pull. 
For a part of the journey I relieved John the Baptist at his oar; 
before long my hands were bleeding on the handle. Just before 
we reached Sandy Point, Chief called a halt and the boats were 
tied up to a kelp-reef while the men entered into a long consul- 
tation across the w r ater about the prospects of a landing. The 
general opinion was that the surf would be too heavy to allow the 
boats to be run ashore in safety unless the women were landed at 
some earlier point. So, at a place where the narrow black beach 
opened out into a great gash in the mountainside, known as Big 
Gulch, all the women and girls were set ashore. They had not 
far to travel. The boats were pulled slowly ahead and the women 
scrambled over the rocks, some carrying children. It was then 
that we heard a deep, growling rumble from the mountain and 
looked up to see massive boulders bounding down the slope 
directly above the women. The oarsmen stopped pulling, all the 
men stood up in the boats and began shouting conflicting advice: 
4 Run back!' 'Run forward!' Their panic was oddly like ex- 
citement, as if they were urging on contestants in a race. For 
what seemed an interminable pause the women crouched still in 
fear and uncertainty. At last they stumbled back on their 
tracks just as the boulders thundered to the beach ; only the little 
dog which had run barking all the way from the settlement was 
killed. The men resumed their seats quietly and took up rowing 
again. With the dispassionateness of a guide giving information 
David Hagan leaned over my shoulder and observed that such 


'falls' were common at the end of summer, when the early rains 
loosened the soil on the mountainside. With my hands still 
trembling on the oar handle, 1 hated David for several minutes. 

As soon as the boats grounded on the pebbles at Sandy Point, 
the men leapt out and ran back along the beach to meet the 
women and children not to express their concern, but to 
congratulate them on their performance in dodging the rocks. 
The whole party returned like a triumphal procession to the 
landing-place. For several minutes everyone talked at once and 
there was a great deal of excited, high-pitched laughter. As the 
various family groups split up to prepare their separate lunches, 
the voices of the women, especially the older ones, could be heard 
retelling again and again how they had felt and how they had 
acted as soon as they heard the 'fall. 5 The story would be 
repeated many times, with proud embellishments, at hearthsides 
during the coming winter. 

After lunch, when the excitement had subsided, Chief led the 
way by a steep path that zigzagged up the cliff-face to a low 
plateau, about a hundred and fifty feet above the sea. Here lay 
the * orchards' a jungle of low, spreading trees, almost unrecog- 
nizable as apple-trees. Their branches formed a wild tangle 
amid the long tussock-grass, both on the level plateau and in the 
hollow of a shallow gulch. There were also a few peach-trees 
that had been planted by the early settlers, but the peaches were 
not ripe ; and one wall of the gulch was completely covered by a 
roving mass of grape-vine but there were no grapes. 

Among the trees it was impossible for the groups to remain 
intact. Each person took a small box, bag, or other receptacle 
and struck out on his own into the jungle. The trees had been 
planted close together and kept low by the winds with the result 
that their branches had become so densely intertwined that it was 
impossible to see a person picking in the tree next to one's own. 
There was no need for ladders and very little climbing was neces- 
sary. Soon the whole party was scattered over the plain, 
invisible among the trees but perceptible by occasional rustlings 
among the leaves and voices calling. At rare intervals, moving 


from tree to tree, one came on little family groups of harvesters. 
The girls were putting the apples they gathered into the bosoms 
of their dresses, returning only occasionally to the nearest box or 
hamper to disgorge them. They looked grotesque, even gross 
figures, with great sagging bosoms. 

Under the trees the long tussock-grass formed a dim, green-lit 
undergrowth, in which the children rustled joyously. Carrying 
my half-filled box from one part of the jungle to another, I came 
upon Emily Hagan, the skirt of her outer dress held out in front 
of her and overflowing with apples, for which she was in search of 
a receptacle. There were just enough to fill the box I was 
carrying. She smiled gratefiilly as I set it down before her; but 
she released the apples too quickly from her dress, so that more 
tumbled in the grass than into the box. This did not seem to 
trouble her. She stooped quickly and picked up two from near 
her feet, then stood idly by while, on my knees, I set about 
retrieving the others . She showed none of the agitation that had 
embarrassed her on the occasion when I interrupted her spinning 
in the yard or on subsequent evenings at her home. Perhaps it 
was because there was no one near to observe us: we seemed to be 
alone in this part of the orchard. Looking up, I asked: 

* Why don't you carry the apples the way the other girls do?' 
She fixed me with her dark-eyed stare, but said nothing. I 

wondered if, after all, she was still timid. She looked away, and 
one hand plucked at the leaves on a branch. My attention had 
returned to the apples on the ground and I thought she did not 
mean to reply, when as if in answer she asked a counter- 

* Is you want me to make myself look hugly like 'at? ' 

After a moment of surprise, I assured her that I wished no such 
thing and could never imagine her looking so. She regarded me 
again with that solemn stare which was at once bold and shy. 
She appeared to be weighing the import of this last remark. I 
believe she did not understand compliments. But after a while 
she seemed to reach the conclusion that some acknowledgment 
was required. As I rose from arranging the last of the spilt 


apples at the top of the box, her hand darted among the leaves 
above her and she asked: 

'Is yon wan' a happle to eat? This one is sweet/ 

She held it out to me on her palm. With just such a gesture 
and perhaps the same shy half-smile had Eve occasioned the fall 
of Man. 

I took the hand which held the apple and led its owner away 
among the trees. She accepted the action placidly, with no 
attempt to draw back. There was no sound of any other har- 
vester near us: we might have been isolated, two dream-figures 
in a strange underworld of grass-clumps and tree-trunks. Emily's 
body was softer, her lips were sweeter than the ripest apple. 

By late afternoon the harvest was complete. Singly and in 
groups the apple-pickers emerged from the tangle of trees, laden 
with boxes and bags of fruit. On the beach computations were 
made of the amount picked. All the islanders were in a lively 
mood, as if at the end of a picnic-outing. There was much banter 
as the boats were loaded. I had been unable to find again the box 
of apples I had left among the trees ; Emily was accused of having 
loitered all the afternoon, without doing any work. No one 
was inclined to spoil a scandalous joke by going back to look for 
the box. 

The sea was calmer as we pulled away from Sandy Point, The 
wind was with us, and after rowing for a short distance we stopped 
to hoist sail. The steady knock of oars in the rowlocks and the 
rhythmic sluicing of blades through the water gave place to a 
silence broken only by a gentle lapping, while the long-boat 
rocked, uncontrolled. Then, as the sail filled, there was a 
pregnant poise and a glide forward. Instead of the regular lift 
and drive of the boat, there was a new onward-surging movement. 
The regular chock of oars had been succeeded by the slow thump 
of the boom across the gunwale and the gentle creak of the mast. 
To this soothing accompaniment we returned home. 


Fireside Topics 

I PROMISED myself that before I left Tristan I would visit every 
home in the village and know every family. My express purpose 
was to compile a complete record of the names of adults and 
children in each household. In time I completed the census, 
adding even the names of many of the dogs and of the only three 
donkeys which seemed to have names: Charlotte's 'Nancy'; 
George Glass's * Black Farr,' and Emily's 'Black Tippy' a name 
to which she indignantly objected, suspecting that it alluded as 
much to her own dark mane as to the donkey's. 

By the time my list was complete, I had sat at every hearthside, 
drunk a cup of * strong drink, ' and been greeted familiarly in every 
cottage on the island. I had even mastered the problem of 
differentiating by name all the islanders. This was not easy. 
Since there were only seven family names, and since the number of 
Christian names was also restricted, it was not unusual for two 
people to have the same combination of names. The villagers 
solved this problem by prefixing the title 'Big' or 'Little' to the 
name of each. This title indicated seniority, not size. We had 



met Big Sam Swain, who because of his exceptional seniority was 
often dignified with the more venerable prefix 'Old' ; and we had 
learnt to distinguish him from Little Sam Swain, a mere stripling 
of sixty-eight. In the same way we had come to know Big 
Gordon Glass a slender, sensitive-looking man of middle height 
and middle age from Little Gordon Glass a rumbling-voiced 
giant, well over six feet of muscle but many years junior to his 
'big' namesake. We likewise distinguished Big Mabel from 
Little Mabel and Big Maggie from Little Maggie. Surnames, 
especially in reference to the women always with the exception 
of Mrs Repetto were hardly ever used. 

Another method of distinction was to couple the names of 
husband and wife: thus we heard allusions to Margaret's Johnny 
(Johnny Repetto), Sophie's Johnny (Johnny Green), and 'Ria's 
Johnny (John Baptiste Lavarello whose wife's full name was 
'Maria,' always pronounced with a long, anglicized 'i'); and 
conversely, there were Willy's Violet (Lavarello), Chrissy's 
Violet (Swain), Robert's Mabel (Lavarello), and Little Gordon's 
Mabel (Glass). 

It had taken us many months to fit the correct name to each 
face the faces seeming sometimes to be as much alike as the 
names. Even now we occasionally met people, women in 
particular, whom we were sure of having never seen before. It 
was as if the settlement carried a mysterious second population of 
stowaways who were gradually coming to light. If I had not 
made a point of introducing myself into every cottage, I am sure 
there would have been inmates of that tiny village whom I should 
never have met, however long our stay there. 

One fact I learned from these visits was the marked difference 
between the best homes and the poorest. Some of the cottages, 
the oldest ones, were of well-trimmed stones, complete with 
lofts and lined throughout with wood. These had been built 
when the skill in stone-masonry of the first settlers and good 
supplies of drift-wood and timber from wrecked sailing ships 
were available. The later ones built since wrecks had become 
few and drift-wood scarce had no lofts and very little woodwork. 


The rafters and thatch were visible inside; and when a strong 
wind tore the tussock loose the occupants were exposed to 
the weather. Some cottages had bare earthen floors ; the walls 
were impanelled or only half-panelled with packing-case wood. 
In most, however, there had been some attempt at making the 
interior home-like; shelves and mantelpieces were lined with 
paper cut into ornamental shapes; and bare stone walls were 
pasted over with old newspaper of which the islanders always 
spoke grandly as 'wall-paper/ as if that had been its primary 

Some families were very 'poor' that is, they possessed few 
cattle, sheep, or oxen, sometimes none. In one or two instances 
this poverty was due to laziness and improvidence. There were 
some men who would never plant enough potatoes to supply their 
families through the winter and who were reduced to selling such 
live-stock as they had not slaughtered and even bartering the 
boards from their houses for potatoes, until their possessions had 
all passed to their neighbours. In these homes the children had 
to be fed almost entirely on fish: they were pale, thin, and under- 
sized beside the other children. 

In such a small, self-contained society we might have expected 
some system of communal sharing and assistance. There was no 
such practice ; and Mrs Repetto, whose influence in all matters of 
village 'policy* was preponderant, hotly denounced any tendency 
of this kind. She declared that it only encouraged greater 
laziness among the already idle. The islanders were essentially 
individualists, with a strong sense of property rights and no 
feeling of responsibility for the weaker members of the com- 
munity or for the neglected children. In this matter the doctor 
brought authority to bear. At his instructions, some of the 
under-nourished children were 'boarded out' and the families 
which fed them received credit chits to spend at the store. He 
had also organized the island men into work-parties and paid 
them, by chit, to do various jobs of construction and improvement 
at the station. Now that this work was finished, the work- 
parties were employed on useful tasks in the village such as the 


installation in all cottages of an improved style of septic lavatory, 
designed by the doctor, in place of the insanitary board-and- 
bucket system, with which the islanders had been accustomed to 
pollute the 'watrons' from which they drew their own drinking 
and washing water. The men were also working together in 
preparing material for the building of a new schoolhouse and 
village hall. For all such employment they still expected to be 
paid 'by the doctor/ on the grounds that they were not working 
* for themselves . ' The notion of working for the community was 
beyond them. 

If neighbourly feeling, however, was lacking, public opinion 
certainly was not. Concern for what the neighbours would say 
dominated every islander's conduct. That anxiety was the 
police force which had prevented any serious crime in the whole 
history of the settlement. Gossip was rife: it was the chief 
activity of the women; but so pervasive was the desire for 
respectability that scandal rarely had a chance. In morality and 
in religion the islanders placed all their emphasis on behaviour. 
The word of God was the word of the padre, and too often that 
was beyond their comprehension. Consequently the ritual 
took precedence over the meaning; church-going was more 
important than belief. Although not subtle enough to be 
hypocrites, the villagers were shrewd in their morality: they 
rated discretion as the highest virtue; and in a hamlet where 
almost all conduct was 'public,' discretion was always needed. 
As Emily often complained, * nobody can't look at anybody 
without somebody knows/ She might show herself a creature 
of warm impulse inside her father's house; but she would not 
openly walk five yards in my company outside, and was reluctant 
even to stop and speak if I met her in the village: 'somebody* 
would see, she said, then 'everybody' would talk. 

Tristan society was by no means the single unit that we had 
at first assumed it to be. The villagers were definitely class 
conscious; certain families were considered superior to others. 
There was one snobbery that was pronounced. The islanders 
were sensitive about the coloured stock that had been included 


among the original settlers, and they viewed with distaste any 
surviving evidence of this strain. Consequently those born with 
fair hair and blue eyes looked down on those with dark hair and 
brown eyes, and regarded with contempt certain people whose 
skin showed a definite swarthiness. The same contempt did not 
extend to those who w r ere illegitimate and there were two or 
three such. Loose behaviour was tabooed, but the occasional 
introduction of new blood by visitors to the settlement, especially 
fair-haired ones, had in the past been tacitly overlooked 
provided always that the external proprieties of conduct had been 
preserved. Discretion, as always, was the touchstone. 

In general outlook the people of Tristan were materialists, and 
there was little room in their lives for the spiritual or the 
imaginative. But they had one or two beliefs of a fanciful nature. 
Several islanders, for instance, were credited with the power of 
seeing * visions' of incidents, usually disastrous ones, before they 
happened. Unfortunately, during our stay, we never received 
report of any such experience in time to test it by events : we 
were told of the vision only after its fulfilment. Young Louie 
Swain, our canteen assistant, was said to hear voices in the air and 
thunder in the earth beneath his feet when some unusual hap- 
pening was imminent ; sometimes too he dreamed about dogs on 
the church roof and this w r as a particularly dire omen. The 
islanders were also inclined to attach some psychic significance 
to the fainting fits common among the adolescent girls. 

There were many minor superstitions among the villagers. 
We often heard allusions to Jack o' Lantern, the spirit once 
commonly believed in by sailors. He was said to be responsible 
for mysterious, moving lights seen at night on the mountainside or 
the cliff-top ; and many of the people, even men, were afraid of 
going out in the dark. The most superstitious person in the 
village if also one of the most shrewdly comrnonsensical was 
Irish-born Agnes Rogers. It was she who told us how Ben Swain 
came to be deformed, having short, unjointed arms that ended in 
little hands where the elbows should have been. Agnes related 
and her voice took on for the occasion more of an Irish lilt 


than it had at other times how Ben's mother, just before his 
birth, had been frightened one winter evening near the grave- 
yard by a tiny figure that ran out from among the graves waving 
short arms and screaming at her; afterwards the islanders pre- 
tended that it was a penguin, but Agnes still clung to a half-belief 
in the 'little folk* of her native mythology. Whatever the 
explanation, Ben had certainly been born with deformed arms 
that startlingly resembled a penguin's flippers. 

On the whole there was a disappointing lack of local lore 
among the villagers. There were very few home cures for illness 
and no home-made poetry or legends. The islanders were fond 
of singing and knew a number of 'airs'; but all of them were 
imported and many of recent origin. The gramophone and 
collection of records given to the island by King George V had 
ousted the older songs. A few interesting survivals were sea- 
songs, generally incomplete and incomprehensible. Emily 
would sometimes sing a verse about 

C A wheel, a wheel, 

A spinning-wheel, 
A wheel without a rim . . . ' 

which seemed to contain a sly reference to the incident early in 
our own acquaintance. It ended with a boisterously irrelevant 
chorus : 

* We'll all go down to Johnstown 
And drink a tot of rum.' 

Others she was fond of were 'Pull for the Shore, Sailors' and 
'Throw out the Life-line.' Charlotte was alone in knowing the 
words of a long, gory ballad of a girl murdered in a barn. She 
sang it for us on her birthday: the story was bewildering, the 
words often unintelligible, and the tune as rendered by her 
harsh, cracked voice was anything but musical. 

There were some indigenous customs, e.g. those con- 
nected with birthdays. In every person's history three birthdays 
were thought more significant than the others. They were the 
first, the twenty-first, and the fortieth these being considered 


the Important stepping-stones in life. Dances and parties were 
held on these occasions, with special feasts of beef or mutton. 
Each guest, on arriving, greeted the holder of the birthday with a 
kiss and a slap a kiss for love and a slap for the hard loiocks of 
life. The normal practice of giving presents was reversed: it 
was the person celebrating the birthday who was expected to 
provide a present for every visitor. These gifts varied from a 
specially knitted garment to a pot of potatoes or a freshly caught 
crayfish. Of 'barfdays 5 we saw a number while on the island 
and attended the dance-parties; we also witnessed christenings, at 
several of which one of our number was invited to * stand' as 
'fardee/ or godfather; but we never saw a wedding. It seemed 
that all the young couples were waiting for us to leave the island 
before they would face the public embarrassment of that ordeal. 

A recent innovation which gave greater publicity to such events 
as these was our own newspaper, the Tristan Times. This was 
produced at the station, edited, typed, and duplicated by the 
meteorological sergeant. It appeared weekly and its price was 
three cigarettes or two potatoes. Most of the villagers bought it. 
Even those who could not read liked to sit in their cottage door- 
ways ostentatiously poring over the latest issue. It was really 
another form of gossip. The interest lay in seeing whose name 
was mentioned this week: there was the same mingled fame and 
notoriety as anywhere else in having one's name in print. 

The paper contained news of the outside world, gleaned from 
radio broadcasts, side by side with news of island affairs. In one 
column appeared such items as: 

Home-based bombers have made heavy attacks on Milan, Turin, and a 
German R.D.F. station on the Baltic coast ... 

while the next column announced: 

The first sea-elephant of the season was discovered by D'Arcy Green 
at the Hardies. He killed it and will collect its oil to-morrow. . . . 
One dinghy went to Stony Beach for beef on Wednesday. . . . Alice 
and Freddie Green are to have their baby daughter christened as soon 
as the boats have been to Nightingale. . . 

~ ; ** "^*- < 

a* .^w*k 

raw ?... .^ : .diriu* . ,. . ^*. * 1 

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^ - ' *\-^11>^3^.;^7sVi V ^; 

/ % " '^;^^Gf^^:f^| 

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Named after the Victorian Duke of Edinburgh, who visited Tristan during his 
royal cruise in 1867. 


His Royal Highness in a long-boat going ashore from the royal yacht at 

Tristan in January 1957 


As this news-sheet proved popular a magazine supplement was 
added, first as a separate publication, edited by the padre, then as 
a section of the newspaper. This contained a few items of a 
general or humorous nature and articles about the island and the 
islanders. It was an ironic commentary on our changed attitude 
to the scene of our exile that, while the more literate islanders 
read with interest the ' Overseas' news, most of us read the items 
about the island. Our interests had moved from the station to 
the village : they focused on the topics that were discussed at the 
firesides that we now regularly visited. 


The Cold Grip 

IN THE last week of March hands were called by Chief to man all 
eight island boats for a trip to Nightingale. The object of the 
trip was to collect petrel fat for use in cooking and in the little 
lamps that would light the cottages during the winter evenings. 
The trip was to be a short one, lasting two or three days. A 
week later the boats had not returned. 

The first day of April brought a foretaste of winter. Overnight 
the wind had howled around the little hut on Herald Point and 
the rain had rattled on its roof. The day dawned bleak and cold 
and windy. Even when the rain stopped and the sun crept wanly 
out, the wind remained brisk and there was a sharp chill in its 
breath. The sea was running heavier than it had since before 

It was unusual for any of our party to be walking in the village 
in the morning, but on this occasion I visited the home of Widow 
Charlotte with some clothes to be washed. She was sitting on a 
low stone abutment at the eastern end of her cottage, a favourite 
seat of hers, where she was sheltered from the westerly wind. 
Past the end of her cottage a stream gurgled. On its other bank 
stood the house where blind William Rogers kept his day-long 


listening watch in an upright chair opposite the door. From that 
doorway now came his wife Agnes and daughter Marie. They 
both carried armfuls of clothes for washing in the stream. The 
greeting which Agnes called out did not seem as cheerful as usual, 
and Marie, though her smile was as blithe as ever, did not sing as 
she banged the wet garments on a boulder to loosen the dirt from 
them. There seemed to be a tension in the air of the whole 
village. It was rather like the effect of a frost. But this effect 
had been building up for the past six days ; the drop in ^mperature 
had occurred only the night before. 

After a couple of minutes Charlotte called out in her blunt 

' Haggle ! When you think they be back ? ' 

'How / know when they be back?' Agnes emphasized the 
disgust of her retort by plunging an armful of clothes energetically 
into the watron. ' Guess they is waiting till the wind haul out.' 

'The win* is done haul out. The win' is in the sou' -west,' 
Charlotte announced with dry finality. 

'Then, reckon they is waiting till the swell die down.' 

'They ain't never had to wait this long 'fore. ' 

Agnes apparently did not think this demanded a reply and there 
was a break in the conversation, while Marie flayed the boulder 
with a sodden shirt. Then Charlotte's voice continued in a 
mutter that could not have been audible on the other side of the 
stream and was not really addressed to me. 'Reckon they mus' 
be done tryin' out 'at petrel fat 'fore now! . . . 'mus be! . . .' 
After an interval of gloomy rumination she called out again to 

'Haggie! You know what Mis' Repetto say?' 

'What Missis Repetto say?' 

'She say it like when she was a little gal, all the men go out in 
the boat, for chase a ship, an' didn't never come back.' 

'What Missis Repetto wanna say 'at fa'?' 

'Mis' Repetto 'member time once 'fore when there ain't 
bare four old men left on Tristan an' all the young ones daid in 
the sea/ 


4 What you wanna say 'at fa', Shawlutt? Is you wanna skeer 

Agnes gathered up the clothes in an accession of anger and 
carried them dripping to the cottage. Marie threw a grin at me 
across the stream as she jumped up to follow her mother. 
Charlotte said no more, but remained seated, a heavy figure of 
foreboding, with the shade of her widowhood like a black cloak 
around her. She was thinking of her only son Wilson, away 
with the other men. 

There I left her and walked back through the village. In the 
absence of most of the menfolk, it had a desolate air. I sensed 
the horror of isolation that must have engulfed those wives of the 
early settlers severed at that time completely from the rest of 
the world when their men were lost. The memory of that 
disaster, handed down through the recitals of Old Sam Swain and 
Mrs Repetto, still haunted the imaginations of the women. 

The tension of frost in the air relaxed a little and the sea became 
quieter. But the atmosphere in the village was held in a grip 
colder than that of frost: it was the stillness of tightly held breath. 
Eight days now and the boats had not returned! Yet the wind 
was from the south-west, the desired direction for the return 
passage from Nightingale. 

On the afternoon of the eighth day I walked, as several had 
done each day of that week, along the road to the Potato Patches 
at the western end of the shelf, from which the boats, if returning, 
would be seen. I did not expect to sight them before other, 
sharper eyes. I walked to get away from the apprehension that 
gripped the settlement and was even invading our quarters. 

The road was a deeply rutted cart-track, created as much by 
custom as intention. Soon it dipped down into one of those 
gulches by which, presumably, molten lava had once streamed 
down from the crater of Tristan. This gulch had been named 
Hottentot by the original garrison from the Cape; few of the 
present islanders knew what the name meant. The road de- 
scended by a deep cutting to a floor littered with boulders and 


devoid of vegetation. Above me rose the walls of the gulch. 
Pausing there, with my range of vision bounded by arid rock and 
empty sky, I was overcome by a sense of desolation. The village 
and the sea were out of sight. All the way up to the still, void 
upper reaches of the gulch, carved in the massy wall of the moun- 
tain, not a weed stirred. I felt the strange stillness that hung 
like an invisible presence deep down among the lifeless rock 
the stillness of utter negation. 

Usually on Tristan two sounds were audible, the voices of wind 
and sea. Since there were scarcely any trees there were no bird- 
songs; even the sea-birds that screamed occasionally above the 
beach nested on the other islands. Consequently, down here in 
the gulch, below the wind, beyond hearing of the sea, the silence 
was absolute and unnerving. It spoke of a solitude that would 
be unbearable. 

With a feeling of relief, as if returning to the known world, 
I climbed out at the other side of the gulch. Just beyond there I 
left the road and climbed a jutting wedge of mountainside called 
the Goat Ridge. The steep turf-slants among the rocks were 
terraced with tiny foot-tracks. Seen from up here among the 
sheep-haunts the village and its shelf and the sea changed propor- 
tions alarmingly. The horizon, now farther away, seemed tipped 
upwards. The shelf seemed to shrink under my feet as I sat on 
the springy turf of the ridge. The sea looked calm enough from 
this height, almost glassy, a blue-grey reflection of the sky. I 
could hear the surf again now, but it sounded only as a faint 
persistent rustle. Far below me, around Herald Point, curled 
long white ripples as they seemed like froth on the sea's lips. 
There was nothing else in sight on the ocean. 

How small, from up here, seemed the troubles of the islanders 
yet pathetic rather than insignificant! The vastness of that 
world of water, the solitariness of that single upthrust of rock, 
and the impersonality of both sea and stone seemed to annihilate 
all struggle and achievement. 

At Easter there was to be a holiday and a dance for the villagers. 
All the young people would be there. The girls would wear 


their best dresses. Already they were thinking about it; and 
more than once Emily had looked at the new frock she had made 
and pressed the wide red sash of which she was so proud. For 
one night the little hall would contain for these people all the 
entertainment of the world ; and while they gave themselves up 
to it, so earnestly, there in that one room full of noise and 
vibrant with thudding feet, their cottages would stand empty of all 
but a few old people and sleeping children. 

Late in the evening the merrymakers would come home, with 
flickering torches and clear voices in the night the husbands and 
wives, the young men and the girls each to a dark doorway. 
For a few hours they would have forgotten the wind that prowled 
through the village in their absence, peering into cottages, nosing 
round corners, snuffling under doors, slinking away among the 
flax gardens. They thought that life was what throbbed there in 
that little pleasure-hall, but it was nothing to the relentless forces 
of life that stirred outside. There was something pitiable in the 
intentness of their enjoyment as they circled like moths about that 
single hub of light and noise. The windows of the hall on these 
occasions radiated into the night a feeble glare of light, a rumble 
of feet, a hum of voices; but these were lost in the immensity of 
the sea and of the darkness that lay like a great weight on those 
half-sunken cottages under the wall of the mountain. 


The Echoing Cry 

* SAIL HO ! ' The cry echoed among the darkened cottages under 
the mountainside. Sa-a-il ho!' It seemed to issue from the 
immense obscurity beyond the cliff-tops. 'Sa-a-il ho-o-oh!' 
A third time it rang in the night, like a great voice from off 
the sea. 

Lights appeared in the village. Cottage doors opened. In 
the house where I sat the click of Emily's knitting-needles was 
stilled, and the room seemed to hold its breath in a silence broken 
only by the distant thudding, like anxious heart-beats, of the surf 
below the cliffs. Beside the hearth the girl's mother, tensed 
from her usual apathy, listened for the repetition of that strained, 
discordant cry. When it came she sprang up with the first show 
of animation I had seen in her and cried: "The boats iss back!' 
The tension broke in a bustle of domestic activity. Emily's 
knitting was flung aside as she jumped from her seat on the bed. 
Wood was thrown on the almost dead embers of the fire, water 
splashed into a large pot in readiness at the hearthside. The two 
little boys asleep on the couch stirred among their dark blankets 


and, amid the general clatter, Piers's sleepy-thin voice was heard 
asking: 'What it is, Momma? 5 

His mother was too busy blowing up the cold ashes to answer 
him. But his sister, as she lifted the pot on to the grill in the 
fire-place, sang out: 'It's you 5 poppa! The boats iss back! 5 
She clapped her hands and repeated like a chant, as she ran to the 
outer door and threw back the top half with a rattle against the 
wall: 'The boats iss back! The boats iss back!' In a moment 
her shyness had been thrown aside as easily as her knitting. 
When I joined her at the door she turned to me in excitement, 
her black eyes shining and her lips parted in an unconscious smile. 
Close together we leaned over the lower door hatch, straining 
our eyes to pierce the darkness towards the sea. Women were 
running between the cottages, borrowing crocks, calling out to 
one another the news that the boats were home from Nightingale. 

Soon torches were bobbing down the road towards the beach. 
Emily ran back into the house to put a kerchief over her head and 
to slip her arms into the sleeves of her father's spare coat. She 
could be heard repeating to her young sister Angela, who was 
awake in the bedroom, the news: 'Daddy's back! ' I opened the 
door and descended the steps into the yard, trying to accustom 
my eyes to the darkness. Emily's mother appeared at the top of 
the steps with a steaming teapot in her hands and a cup threaded 
by its handle on her little finger. She was calling back into the 
house to Angela: 'Hangel, you best stay 5 n moind the boys. 5 
Donald's voice protested wilfully: Tse coming down the beach. 5 
'You ain 5 t no coming down no beach, 5 his mother contradicted. 
'You gotta stay wid buddy and tiddy. 5 Piers's peremptory treble 
took up the formula with conclusive assurance: 'Yes, you gotta 
stay, Dondil. 5 

Then Emily rushed out, almost pushing her mother down the 
steps and calling out to me 'Iss you coming down the beach? 5 
as she ran on into the darkness, knotting the kerchief under her 
chin. I set off warily in the same direction: this ground, littered 
with rocks, was not familiar to me at night-time. Somewhere 
in the gloom her mother's voice called plaintively: 'Hemly, 


waffa' you don't carry this cup for me ? ' But it was impossible to 
recognize any among the hurrying figures around me. Some of 
them carried torches, smoky brands that blinded those who had 
none and made the way seem blacker. 

The crashing of the surf came to meet us and, as we crested the 
slope down to Little Beach, the glimmer of the sea illumined the 
scene. Then panic broke out. The voice of one of the early 
arrivals cried that there was 'bare one boat,' Women ran 
stumblingly down the steep bank and across the shingle towards 
the dim hulk of that boat just above the surf. Emily's mother 
went slithering past me on the pebbles, spilling half the tea from 
her pot, mumbling David! David!' Then the foremost 
torches lit up grinning faces of men clustered about the boat and 
Arthur Repetto 's great laugh was heard above the surf and the 
rattle of dislodged pebbles. 

Only one boat had returned. But the others were still safe at 
Nightingale. It had been the idea of headstrong Arthur or 
'Panny' Repetto to make the return voyage alone, when the 
opinion of his brother, Chief, had convinced the other boats' 
crews that the sea was too rough. Arthur's docile crew had 
acquiesced in his escapade. Old Gaeta, coming up to them on 
the beach, said they 'musta be crazy to skeera the women lika 
that. 5 Arthur threw back his head to laugh the louder, his face 
convulsed in the torchlight. 

The boat had not been sighted earlier in the day because it had 
not cleared the Bluff until after dusk. The wind had been high 
and the men had been rowing continuously since seven o'clock 
in the morning. They were glad of extra hands on the beach to 
haul the boat high and dry and of the hot black tea that the women 
brought. They had all stood up in the boat to join in the loud 
hail that had startled the village, but now some of the younger 
ones were too tired to share any further in Arthur's rollicking 

David Hagan was not in the crew of Arthur Repetto 's boat. I 
was perhaps a little glad. I even hoped that Chief's caution 


would withhold the remainder of the expedition another day or 
two on Nightingale. 

But on the very next day the wind dropped, the sun shone, and 
the other boats sailed home in sedate formation behind the 
Canton. They were sighted from the Patches in the morning and 
in the afternoon were visible from Herald Point. It seemed that 
every 'lad' of the 'willage' had saddled his donkey and ridden out 
to the Point to watch the boats returning. Throughout the 
afternoon watch the boys galloped maddeningly round and 
round the hut until it should be time to 'pynte' for the beach and 
help with the unloading. 

Going off duty at four o'clock in the afternoon, I left the hut 
and walked to the edge of the cliff to get a better view of the 
miniature regatta. The sun gilded the water, but in patches the 
breeze ruffled it black. I stood watching the triangular sails, like 
scraps of white paper, gliding across a dark patch of sea. Sud- 
denly I could see them no more. I searched the ocean, looking 
for the white flashes, until one of the boys, Edwin or 'Cabby' 
Glass, reined in his donkey beside me and pointed laughingly at 
some black specks on a stretch of gleaming silver. 'White sails 
on the black water, black sails on the white water,' he chanted, 
jeering at my ignorance, and wheeled his sure-footed mount 
within perilous inches of the cliff-edge. 

Before sundown the men were sipping their tea on the beach 
and the boys were stringing cans of petrel fat across the backs of 
their donkeys. The party had brought home well over two 
hundred gallons of fat from Nightingale. Little Beach seemed as 
populated as the sea front of a small English coast resort and the 
bright kerchiefs and dresses of the women contributed to a 
holiday effect, enhanced for English minds by the presence of the 
donkeys. Reunions on the beach after an expedition of several 
days always evoked high spirits, and on this occasion the men had 
been absent nine days. Island manners forbade the demon- 
stration of private affections, but shouting and laughing relieved 
the feelings which had congested during the days of waiting. 

In the general melee of unloading and carrying, the donkeys 


came in for many gratuitous thwackings, and the bullocks carting 
away the heavier loads were persuaded to make the necessary 
effort up the steep cliff road by a thonged whip laid cruelly 
across their noses by the shouting teamsters, who ran backwards 
up the slope ahead of them. Dogs added to the commotion by 
darting eagerly among the people and occasionally falling into 
snarling combats. George Glass's huge mongrel, Darby, engaged 
in a fierce encounter with another dog, but George, stepping 
between them grabbed Darby by two handfuls of his shaggy coat 
and lifting him bodily above his head hurled him fifty feet out 
into the surf. Darby rose and shook the water from his eyes with 
a gesture of mild surprise, then splashed back to the beach, his 
spirits effectively damped, while George turned placidly to 
receive the cup of tea his wife had been holding for him. 

'Sail ho!' was the cry with which the islanders heralded not 
only the home-coming of their own boats but the appearance of 
any vessel off Tristan. In earlier times ships had been frequent 
callers. Sometimes, as the older men recalled, several whalers 
would put in there during a day, or a small fleet would remain for 
several days in the vicinity while the factory-ship anchored near 
the beach. Some whaling captains had even established tem- 
porary homes ;at the settlement while they remained in the South 
Atlantic, With the passing of sail and the suspension of whaling 
in those waters, the island had long been left unvisited: but during 
our stay we received calls at long intervals from a mail and 
supply ship from the Cape, and these visits caused among the 
islanders almost as great a stir as had been provoked by our own 

As a topic of conversation the appearance of the next ship 
supplanted even the weather. We were usually notified by radio 
when the event was due and the villagers accepted as quite normal 
our foreknowledge of it. Sometimes they would glance up 
knowingly at the aerials, imagining that the wires could be 
seen shaking when a signal was coming in. But in general they 
found it easier to credit all ' outsiders ' with omniscience than to 


try to understand how they came by any particular piece of 

Our supply ship was generally a little tramp steamer diverted 
from her course to South America. She arrived, as a rule, late in 
the afternoon, flashing her signal-lamp from afar off. On many 
such occasions the sea ran as high as our excitement and the 
islanders doubted the possibility of launching a boat. Slowly the 
ship steamed past the settlement, plunging head-down into great, 
grey swells, her masts looking as slender as threads, her low hull 
almost invisible among the waves. Considerately, the captain 
signalled: 'Mail aboard. Do you wish to bring ashore to-night? ' 
Inconsiderately, we flashed back 'YES.' The steamer anchored, 
a single island boat put off from Little Beach and there was a long, 
hard pull out to the ship. Seen from close quarters, her grey- 
painted hull was mottled with rust and red lead. 

The arrival of a ship caused an upheaval of routine, both for us 
and for the villagers. As soon as she anchored there was a 
concourse to the beach. The boats were launched, and once our 
stores had been brought ashore the island men, with the captain's 
permission, went aboard with their calfskin trade-bags. These 
contained local curios and home-made articles sheepskin mats, 
knitted garments, pouches made of penguin 'tossels,' oxhide 
moccasins, model island boats, bullocks' horns polished and 
mounted on wood all of which the owners hoped to barter with 
the seamen for bags of flour, old boots, or clothes. For us the 
occasion meant a chance of hearing some first-hand news of the 
'outside world/ of mingling for a brief period with new com- 
pany, of seeing a few fresh faces . It was an opportunity we never 
missed. Often the crew were Lascars, speaking little English, 
but the officers were English or American, the engineers in- 
variably Scots. And in the wireless cabin we could talk shop 
with the operators. 

In the week following the ship's departure, a sickness afflicted 
the island. In the case of the villagers it was a physical distress, 
a sort of influenza which they call c tissock. ' It affected especially 
the women and children; and the odd thing was that only ships 


coming from the Cape caused it. The vessels which occasionally 
called on their way from South America brought no 'tissock.' 
On us the visit had a different effect. It was in the weeks 
following, with our company reduced again to the maddeningly 
familiar circle of faces around the mess-table, that life on Tristan 
seemed most barren. Our sickness then was mental. 

Occasionally the cry of 'Sail ho!' announced the arrival of an 
unexpected visitor. One evening, after dusk, an islander tapped 
diffidently at the door of our quarters to tell us that a ship was 
* signalizing. ' The operator at the station had not seen her. She 
proved to be an American merchantman that had rounded the 
Cape without putting in to port and was now in desperate need of 
supplies. Two island boats were launched. The sea was making 
up rough, but three of our party decided to accompany the 
islanders. The ship signalled that she had lost one anchor in a 
storm off the Cape and the captain refused to let go the other for 
fear of losing it ; so she was continually drifting away from the 

Rowing out to her was hard work. At times the boat I was in 
seemed to stand on end. A squall of rain helped the spray to 
drench us thoroughly. When eventually we got alongside, she 
was rolling heavily and the islanders were afraid that she would 
roll over on the boat. As it was now dark, the captain shone a 
searchlight on us. We managed to pull to the ladder. One 
moment it plunged in the sea beside us, next moment it was 
swinging madly above our heads. By luck as much as agility we 
at last climbed on board, bringing the Americans enough food to 
last seventy men ten days. We were given a warm welcome. 

By the time we climbed back over the side of the ship, she had 
drifted nearly five miles from the island. The captain wanted us 
to pull to windward of him so that he could tow us nearer inshore. 
The islanders protested that the boat was too light and would be 
swamped. They hurriedly pulled away into the darkness. But 
the American captain was not to be outdone: he was determined 
to tow us. From his bridge he was evidently searching the gloom 
for our boat. When we had been rowing for about an hour we 


suddenly found the ship bearing down on us in the darkness. 
She seemed to be coming fast and looked incredibly huge. We 
shouted, but could not be heard; we threw lighted matches 
frantically in the air to show our position, so that she would not 
ride us down. The oarsmen had to row furiously round the 
ship's stern as she went by ; a few moments later she reversed her 
engines and began coming astern. Again we had to pull tre- 
mendously on the oars in fear of being drawn in by the suction of 
her screws. It was unnerving yet laughable being chased by a 
ship in the middle of the ocean in complete darkness. 

She went by so close that we could hear the skipper's voice, 
apparently far above us, 'goddamning' through his megaphone. 
In disgust he had given up the chase. It took us two and a half 
hours to pull back to the shore. Just before midnight we 
stepped out on the beach, sodden and chilled to the bone. 

Another unexpected visitor was a large passenger liner, the 
Rangitata. She carried no passengers on this trip; but she had 
not, like most of her class, been converted into a troopship. 
We sat in her lounge in soft arm-chairs on a deep-piled carpet, 
being served with drinks by a white-coated steward. For an 
hour of make-believe we became tourists glancing through the 
port-holes at a strange island and a primitive settlement. 

A more mysterious visitor was sighted one morning in April far 
away to the eastward. The islanders at once declared that she 
was a sailing ship. We dismissed the idea. Later, as she came 
nearer, by the aid of binoculars, 'Doc* was able to make out 
a three-masted, square-rigged vessel, proceeding in a south- 
westerly direction. She had apparently no intention of standing 
in to the island. Radio calls brought no reply and she was too far 
away to read our signal-lamp. She passed out of sight to the 
south, in the direction of Cape Horn, and we heard nothing about 
her; a report to Simonstown failed to elicit her identity. 

The anachronism of her appearance near Tristan seemed to 
confirm our sense of isolation during those months when the 
island was left alone, as if forgotten, in the glittering or grey- 
hazed immensity of the sea. 


Open Hearth 

IT WAS disconcerting to have to do one's love-making in the 
presence of the family. True Emily's mother usually retired to 
bed as soon as she had brewed my evening tea, but her father 
always stayed up until my departure. His motive was a sense not 
so much of propriety as of the requirements of hospitality; but 
there was something in the undeviating gaze of his dark eyes and 
in the relentless affability of his smile that imposed a kind of 
formality, almost a deference. I had already leamt something of 
David Hagan during our stay on Inaccessible Island. It was 
David's function in life to sit in the corner and smoke his pipe. 
He did it in the living-room of his cottage, as he had done it under 
the inverted boat on the beach at Inaccessible. Yet it was sur- 
prising how potent an influence he could exert by the mere 
presence of his lean, brown face at the corner of the hearth and 
even a little, it really seemed, through the pipe-stem for ever 
clenched between his dark jaws. 

When he had been away on Nightingale and only his wife had 


crouched at the fireside, tending the pot, and Emily had perched 
aloof in her own aura on the edge of the bed, her dark head 
lowered over her knitting, the room had seemed without 
character a bare-walled compartment, to the corners of which 
the feeble radiance of the bird-oil lamp never penetrated. The 
individual components of the room: its walls and furniture; the 
long sofa; the dark-blanketed bed, at the end of which Emily's 
two little brothers lay asleep in their clothes ; the sorry-looking 
table, where a cup and a teapot stood beside the tiny home-made 
lamp; the painted name-board of the wrecked Mabel Clark, 
inserted in the wall above the wide fire-place all these features 
had made separate little impacts on the mind. The people 
sitting about the room had been distinct yet unrelated entities. 
David's return had been like that of a familiar household object to 
the exact light patch on the wall that had marked its old position. 
Immediately the room had developed a harmony. It was im- 
possible to be unconscious of his looming, yet often soundless, 
presence at the hearthside. Even the furniture seemed to align 
itself into a definite relation to the shadowy corner in which he 
chose to sit: it was as if by a change of position he could draw 
the very walls into a different shape. 

There was in the room another silent presence, which had 
at first encounter disturbed me that of Wilson Glass, Emily's 
persistent but unsuccessful suitor. For months he had been 
coming to the house in the evenings and for hours sitting in a 
changeless attitude on the long, wooden sofa, so that it had come 
to be known as Wilson's sofa. It had never, so far as I had seen, 
been shared by the girl herself. The first time that I had entered 
the room and found Wilson sitting there, with his long, stocking- 
clad legs out-thrust as if to impede my passage, I was nonplussed. 
But since neither the girl nor her family seemed to pay any 
attention at all to his presence, I soon learned to disregard it. 
He remained a vague, undefined figure, always there in the back- 
ground. There was even a certain comfort to be derived from 
him, as from a shadow that confirmed one's own substantiality . 

When I came to the house early in the evening, while David 


was still out in the dinghy fishing, Wilson had already assumed his 
nightly position on the wooden bench. As I clumped heavily up 
the steps in sea-boots, to announce my approach, and pushed open 
the outer door, I heard Emily's clear voice break off in the middle 
of some boisterously inappropriate sea chorus. There followed 
the excited shouts of the two little boys as they rushed to meet me 
in the doorway. As I entered the girl's dark eyes flared a 
greeting across the room. The time carne when she did not even 
interrupt her singing, but smiled at me through the words and 
eventually became so 'forward' as to twirl her billowing skirts in 
a few impromptu dance steps about the room to express her high 
spirits until her mother cried out to her to sit down and 'moind' 
her f manners. 5 It was the mother's continual dread that Emily's 
vivacity would betray her into some dreadful effrontery. 

Often I was greeted by the clatter of utensils being hurriedly 
cleared out of sight. The islanders were always irregular about 
their meal- times. No matter when I timed my visit, I would 
arrive, in all likelihood, to find Donald and Piers being served 
with a late tea or an early supper, consisting usually of the yolks 
of two or three eggs boiled in milk to form 'skouse.' As I 
appeared they would snatch up their dishes and spoons and with 
much laughter scamper away on bare feet into the other part of 
the cottage, occupied by their grandmother. The villagers were 
bashful about eating in the presence of a 'stranger,' however 
familiar he had become. 

At sundown David returned from fishing. As soon as the 
dinghy was seen to be making for the shore, the elder boy, 
Donald, would rush away to the beach to help his father bring 
home the catch. Together they would re-enter the house, 
Donald dragging a bag, from which he would tip out on to the 
floor a dozen live crayfish. The lobster-like creatures began at 
once to crawl about in all directions very slowly, their stiff- 
jointed legs clicking faintly on the boards. Excitedly Donald 
would snatch them up one at a time by the foreleg and pop them 
into a large pot of water that stood in readiness on the fire. 
From the window-seat his brother Piers would watch with the 


contempt of his inferior years but superior wisdom. A lid was 
placed on the pot to keep the crayfish down, and as the water 
became hotter they could be heard stirring about inside. Later 
in the evening, when the boys were already curled up asleep at 
the end of the bed, the pot would emit a throaty, bubbling sound. 

It was accepted as only proper that I should have the seat of 
honour, on the tousled bed, where I was always afraid of sitting 
on the sleeping children, and that Emily should sit beside me, 
where I might place a discreet arm around her waist as I ques- 
tioned David politely about his fishing or the recent potato 
harvest. Only Wilson's outstretched legs crossed and recrossed 
themselves uneasily. 

The effect of the bird-oil lamp on the girl's face was flattering. 
As she leaned near it to examine the stitches of her knitting, its 
yellow glow lent a richness to her rounded cheeks and a soft 
duskiness to the shadows of her eyes. Against the dimly lit room 
her face hovered like a bright flower. At times she was gentle 
and placid. Then, as she lifted her head in sudden laughter, 
letting her knitting fall idle in her lap, her eyes would sparkle 
with a bright darkness, sweeping up the discountenanced Wilson 
in a careless glance, much as she would sweep up a fallen scrap of 
dried fish with the whisk of brushwood which served as a broom 
and stood in the corner near the door. 

She held attention like a skein of wool carelessly in her hands, 
which might at any moment let it fall. Her vivacity might 
prompt her suddenly to bound from the bed where she sat and 
throw open the lid of the chest which acted as a window-seat. 
In this she kept her dresses and private treasures, which she 
would produce for my inspection. On one occasion she brought 
out a wide, blood-red ribbon, which she planned to show off at 
the next dance. Sitting on the chest, she let down her hair, so 
that it fell in a dark cascade over her shoulders. Then she 
bound it loosely back with the ribbon, which shone among the 
black tresses like a red carnation. With a smile of pleased 
coquetry she posed for admiration. 

While such diversions were being offered, David sat on a box 


at the comer of the hearth, leaning forward over his widely 
spaced knees, gazing into the flames under the crayfish -pot. 
Shadows ran in the hollows of his cheeks as he sucked at his pipe ; 
dull red high lights glinted on his cheek-bones. After a while 
he removed his moccasins and leaned back, with his shoulders 
braced against the wall, stretching out his stockinged feet and 
watching the exchanges of his daughter and his guest with the 
kind of interest that one bestows on playful kittens. Occasion- 
ally he would insert a quiet remark or his teeth would flash in a 
shy, friendly smile. But there always seemed to lurk in his eyes a 
flicker of ironic amusement, which could more effectively check 
the display of ardour than any fatherly interdiction. Not that 
David was disposed to interfere. Quite the contrary. On one 
occasion, when intimacy had created momentarily its own illusion 
of privacy, I looked up to find on his face a smile of ineffable 
benevolence. But the effect of that smile was wholly deflating. 

Conversation with Emily was largely a programme of teasing 
and being teased. Her only range of interest was in gossip about 
the other personnel at the station and trifling scandal about the 
other girls of the village. About the past or the future or about 
the world beyond Tristan she had no curiosity. The present time 
and place were to her sufficiently engrossing and she lived in them 
vigorously, immune from the civilized disease of boredom. 
When she had nothing better to do she would sometimes find 
delight in a playful spite towards those she disliked and even 
more often towards those she liked. The only attention she ever 
paid to Wilson was to turn on him with pretended amazement at 
his presence and inquire maliciously: 

4 What you iss sitting 'yah for, Wilson? Iss you trying to wear 
out the seat of you 5 trousers ? ' 

Wilson acknowledged with a sheepish smile his gratitude for 
this much notice. 

When Emily felt tired she went to sleep promptly and with- 
out regard far the place or company that she was in. Regularly, 
before the evening was old, her dark, curly head would fall 
against my shoulder and rest there in a benumbing position. 


Then David felt called on to pick up the slender skein of conver- 
sation that his daughter had dropped. Emerging from his 
hahitual taciturnity, he talked graphically and well. He spoke 
about the ships which had visited the island the Cachalot, the 
Cap Pilar, the Joseph Conrad, Shackleton's Quest and those which 
had been wrecked there, including the schooner Emiljr, after 
which his daughter had been named, and the Mabel Clark, of 
which one of the name-boards formed a part of his house. He 
told me about his cousin, John Hagan, who had left the island 
years ago and still wrote letters occasionally from Cape Town. 
He recalled the various whaling captains, most of whom had been 
popular with the islanders, and the various missionaries, several of 
whom had been unpopidar. 

Sometimes he would ask about the outer world. 'What sort 
of beach is yon-all got in England? Is it as big as Big Beach?' 
I answered that we had a great number of beaches, some of them 
miles long. He smiled with polite incredulity. He was curious 
about snow. The islanders saw a thin coating of it sometimes on 
the peak but never on the lower ground. I told David that some 
countries had snow all the year and that it could lie in drifts as 
deep as the cliffs above Little Beach. His imagination failed 
before such an idea. And when he read in the Tristan Times the 
numbers of 'Caimans' killed or captured, he refused to accept 
them. 'Sure, there ain't 'at many people in the whole warl',' 
he declared. 

For long periods, as if in retaliation for my stories of other 
countries, David would talk about Nightingale Island, which he 
assured me was a 'rale fancy' place, quite unlike Tristan: the birds 
there covered the ground so thickly, he alleged, that they had no 
room to fly off, but used to climb to the top of a tall rock to take 
flight. Sometimes that pinnacle was so ' chock' with them that it 
looked like a 'rock o' buds.' On the subject of Nightingale and 
its birds David spoke, as did most of the men, with something 
approaching enthusiasm. His voice was low but resonant, and 
his eyes glowed with a sombre fire. 

When I rose to say 'Good night,' the girl slipped without 


waking from my shoulder to a recumbent position on the bed, 
where she would remain until the morning. She never knew at 
what time I left the house. From his place on the sofa Wilson 
did not stir. For all I knew, he might spend the whole night 
there in silent vigil, while David continued to gaze into the 
embers of the fire. All the way out to the hut on Herald Point, 
where I had to keep my own solitary night watch, listening to the 
tremulous piping of morse signals from invisible ships unknown 
leagues away, I carried a vision of those two silent men watching 
over the sleeping girl, like mourners beside a cherished corpse. 


Wild Pursuit 

THE SUMMER, which had on the whole been much better than we 
had expected, was ending. Already the mornings were intensely 
cold. Sometimes the sun would reappear, surprisingly warm, 
but most days were squally. The wind, as always on the island, 
was our worst enemy and the sea was often rough. All night 
long we could hear it talking on the beach, foreboding the wild 
months ahead. 

Soon all the larger boats would be hauled up, by means of the 
salvaged capstan of the Italia on the cliff-top, to the Boat Place, 
out of reach of the surf; only the fishing-dinghies would remain 
on the beach for use through the winter months. Before this 
was done, however, there was one last outing to be made. 
Gordon Glass and several other hands were to take one of the big 
boats round to Stony Beach on the southern coast of the island. 
They were going to kill a young steer in the herd of wild 
cattle kept there. The occasion for the killing was the twenty- 
first birthday-party of Gordon's son, Clement. In a society as 
isolated and self-enclosed as that of Tristan it was natural that 
birthdays should be events of importance to the whole com- 
munity. They were celebrated by dances and parties, at which 
special feasts of beef or mutton were provided for the guests. 

So the killing of Clement's birthday steer was not an event 
concerning only his family. The British Trader was the boat 


chosen for the outing and hands from several different families 
composed the crew: Gordon Glass and, of course, his son 
Clement; George and Godfrey Glass; Teddy Swain; Johnny 
Repetto ; and Douglas Green. Three of them Godfrey, Johnny, 
and Douglas had guns, Douglas's being a German model that 
had been presented to him by one of the missionaries and of 
which he was extremely proud. He had practised with it so 
often that he was acknowledged, somewhat on trust, to be the 
island's marksman. 

A suitable day occurred about the middle of April, during one 
of those intervals of beautiful calm when the sky and the sea 
appeared poignantly blue after weeks of greyness. It was a day 
on which I was able to join the party. We assembled at six- 
thirty in the morning outside Gordon's house and by seven 
o'clock we had put out from Little Beach in the Trader. The 
weather being so calm and the wind in the right direction, we 
were able to hoist sail as soon as we rounded Big Point, at the end 
of the settlement plateau. Stony Beach lay four miles beyond 
Sandy Point, where the apple harvest had been gathered, so the 
first part of the journey was already familiar to me. Gordon 
Glass, a slender, soft-spoken, sensitive-faced fellow, sat at the 
tiller, and as we sailed smoothly through bubbling water past the 
various gulch-ends and headlands of the coast, he entertained me 
with their names. Some of the names were self-explanatory; 
of others even the islanders had forgotten the origin. Farmost 
Point; Shirtail Gutter; Jews' Point, where a ship carrying Jewish 
emigrants from Europe to South Africa had been wrecked; 
Softrock; Down-where-the-minister-landed-his-things; Halfway 
Beach ; Blacksand Beach ; Noisy Beach ; Ridge- where-the-goat- 
jump-off; Blineye. Finally came Stony Beach itself, which 
appeared to deserve its name. 

It was no more than a steep strip of shingle, with large boulders 
half buried in the surf. The landing looked difficult. As we 
approached, Gordon pointed out a disturbance in the sea where 
an outlying pinnacle of rock, which he called a 'sleeper,' rose to 
just below the surface, so that only a ridge of white foam 


betrayed its presence. He steered carefully between it and the 
shore. As we drew nearer to the landing-place the sail was 
lowered. The men took off their moccasins and stockings, 
already wet with water in the bottom-boards, and stowed them in 
disconsolate little piles under the gunwale of the boat. Then 
they pulled to within a few yards of the beach, where George 
and Godfrey, with trousers rolled up above their knees, jumped 
out and waded ashore. The boat was held off by the oarsmen, 
while the two on the beach gathered pebbles and threw them 
down into the crannies between the great rocks at the water's 
edge, to make a sort of slipway for hauling up the boat. For 
long minutes we had to wait, rocking in the surf, gazing at an 
unprepossessing shore. 

Behind the beach the land fell away brokenly from the 
mountainside, forming a shelf not unlike that on the northern 
coast, where the village was built. But this scene was more 
rugged. Over it lay the strange, inimical silence that confronted 
one everywhere on the island away from the actual settlement. 
Clouds drifted low over the slopes ; the soft lapping and splashing 
of the surf seemed only to intensify the wakeful hush. As we 
stared at the shore it seemed to stare back at us, malignantly. 
The pebbles cast down by the two men on the beach made a 
hollow 'clop,* almost wooden, as they settled into the crevices, 
looking white among the wet rocks until the next rush of surf 
washed them dark. The irregular sound of their falling echoed 
so loudly that I glanced involuntarily ashore, to see if some strange 
thing had been awakened there. 

When the jagged teeth of the land had been levelled in this way, 
the rowers took two mighty strokes on the crest of a wave, 
boated their oars and leapt out, running the boat up the slipway of 
pebbles, where the rest of us jumped out to help them. The 
gear was unloaded, the oarsmen put their socks and moccasins on 
again and we sat for a while in the long, moist grass that grew just 
above the beach, eating our breakfast of cold roast potatoes. 
Behind us stood or rather sagged the remnants of two little 
huts that the islanders had built there years before. Like the hut 


on Inaccessible Island they had yielded to the repeated assaults of 
wild nature: only four lurching door-posts, an unnatural piling of 
stones, which had once been walls, and some crumbling rafters, 
from which bunches of dead grasses hung, showed where man's 
hand had tried to mould nature. 

Shouldering the guns, our party began to make its way up 
through the long, coarse grass to the rocky ground above. The 
landscape was wild, much wilder than that near the settlement. 
A faintly marked path twisted steeply among scraggy brushwood. 
The day had become gloomy, with rain-logged clouds swinging 
low about the mountain. There was very little breeze, and 
soon the hilly nature of the country shut away the only sound 
that disturbed the air the rustle of the surf along the beach. 
The islanders climbed in single file, quickly and silently on 
moccasined feet, at a slack-kneed pace that left me breathless. 
They seemed to have become strangers to me, to have taken on 
something of the alien, untouched wildness of the place itself. 
I felt that if I spoke now they would round on me with a dark, 
incognizant stare even hostile. 

Around us, as we climbed, rose the gaunt stumps and boughs of 
trees, devoid of foliage and bearing only a few twigs. They had 
a stark, blackened appearance, as if charred by fire, but their 
condition was due to the furious south and south-east winds 
which had whipped them bare and stunted their growth. At 
length we came to a pocket of level ground, with the mountain- 
side sheer above us and a group of low and curiously conical hills 
shutting out sight and sound of the sea on the other side. In 
this pocket even the air seemed to pause. Directly ahead of us 
the ground rose to a sharp ridge. The islanders approached it 
warily, and I gathered that the cattle were near. Fortunately 
the wind was against us. We climbed the slope to the ridge and 
lay flat just below the crest. Then I peeped over and gasped 
with surprise. 

Immediately below us the land fell away steeply to a wide 
plain that must have been one of the largest tracts of level ground 
on the island. Along its edge the sea curled and frothed. At its 


far end the land rose ruggedly again to meet the wall of the 
mountain which marched out to sea, closing the shelf. Over 
this plain were scattered cattle, a great herd, larger than I had 
expected. Most of them were lying down, many of the cows 
accompanied by calves . The bulls were standing on the outskirts , 
and the whole herd had an air of alertness not to be found in the 
few domestic cattle that were kept at the settlement. One 
black bull on the near edge of the herd was looking at the ridge 
where we lay with a fixity that seemed to show suspicion of our 
presence. Yet it was impossible that he should have got wind 
of us. 

The islanders were peering through the grass, lying flat on their 
stomachs, examining the cattle. The distance was too great to 
reveal any brands or other distinguishing marks. Half in jest I 
asked Clement: 

'Well, have you spotted the one we're after?' 

With calm seriousness he replied: 

'That young black one with the white nose, way obber the far 

I was sure there were at least as many black steers as red ones in 
the herd, and they all seemed to have white noses. 

In spite of the black bull's suspicious scrutiny of the jidge, the 
rest of the herd still lay scattered, unaware of our presence. 
The nearest animal was about half a mile away. Yet the instant 
that Godfrey Glass, rifle in hand and with hardly any movement of 
his feet, quietly raised his lanky form, every beast in the herd was 
on its feet; the black bull had retreated a few rapid paces, then 
wheeled again to join his belligerent stare to a multitude of others 
all fixed unerringly on the ridge, where a group of figures now 
stood up. 

Quickly and quietly Godfrey led the way down the steep slope 
to the plain, where the cattle were beginning to mill, the bulls on 
the outside, the cows and calves in the centre. There was no 
lowing or bellowing, only a deep rumble that grew more and 
more fearsome as we approached. Hundreds of hooves were 
stamping, hundreds of horns were tossing with agitation which 


might have been fear, but to me signified ferocity. Faster and 
more noisily they circled as we drew near; then, to my unvoiced 
relief, the black leader broke the mill-wheel and headed the herd 
away in a lumbering stampede towards the far side of the plain. 

The men followed at an unhurried lope over the uneven 
ground, trying to keep their eyes on the young steer that was their 
target. They seemed to be in no hurry to come to close quarters, 
and every time that they approached within shooting range the 
herd went high-tailing away in a fresh direction after its leader. 
At first this direction was always away from us, but soon anger 
overcame fear and our black opponent changed his tactics, 
bearing down straight upon us at the head of a thundering charge. 
Then there was a frantic scramble and flounder to get out of their 
path as the cattle thudded past, spittle flying from their mouths. 

The islanders cheered and shouted, and two Glass brothers 
roared with laughter as lumbering George Glass lost his footing 
and rolled himself furiously over and over to get clear of the 
pounding hooves. This sport, it seemed, offered most enter- 
tainment to the cattle or to a detached observer; and since I 
could not be of the former party I decided to become the latter. 
Retiring from the chase, I climbed the smooth, pyramidal side of 
one of the cone-shaped hills that I had noticed earlier. From 
the top, like the spectator at Sir Roger 's beagle-hunt, I could 
command a grandstand view. 

The village people said that these hill-cones contained bottom- 
less holes. At the vertex of the cone I had climbed was the 
mouth of a hole, almost completely overgrown with bushes. 
Whether the hole was * bottomless' could not be ascertained; but 
a large stone thrown down the opening, after ricocheting from 
the sides, sent back no audible thud from the depths. I con- 
cluded that these holes were originally blowholes of the volcano 
of which the island consisted: the symmetrical cones of earth had 
presumably been thrown up ages before by the same volcanic 

From the hill-top the whole plain was visible. For an hour 
men chased cattle and cattle chased men from one end of it to the 


other. Only three shots were heard, and It was the third which 
brought down the young steer. The rest of the herd rumbled 
away to the other end of the level ground, where they formed a 
long and motionless rank: not one pair of horns tossed nor one 
pair of eyes dropped its relentless stare, as they watched the little 
group of men in the middle of the plain skin the fallen beast and 
cut the meat into portions small enough to carry back to the boat. 
When at length the party began to move back towards the ridge 
I joined them. They were in high spirits, their hands smeared 
with the blood of the beef they were carrying. Only Douglas, 
the celebrated marksman, looked crestfallen. 

'Who shot the steer?' I asked. 

'Jawhnnie!' was the chorus, and Johnny Repetto, the Chief's 
youngest brother, a freckle-faced giant, grinned with embarrassed 

The cattle, as we topped the ridge on our way back to the 
beach, were still ranged in an implacable phalanx, bitter but 
unyielding. It was mid afternoon when we pushed the boat off 
again. As the wind was against us and rather stronger now than 
it had been in the morning, the men had to row back. Once 
round Sandy Point, we ran head-on into the wind and a rough sea. 
For an hour the boat seemed hardly to move, while the hands 
strained at the oars. The men encouraged one another with 
gasped phrases : * Lawng strocks ! ' c Fishermen's strocks ! ' The 
wind battered us, water flew about us, darkness came. At last 
the boat rounded Big Point and came into the calm lee water. 
We were nearly home and it was late in the evening. The men 
became jovial, as they always did when nearing the home beach. 
They began to sing and laugh as they rowed. Gordon at the tiller 
smiled happily. Moonlight was gleaming on the oar blades as 
they leapt like flying-fish above the water after each stroke; 
bursts of phosphorescence ran like silver fire on the black surface. 
It was a good home-coming. 

Off Little Beach we stood up in the boat and gave tongue 
together in the long-drawn hail: 'Sail ho-o-oh!' Lights ap- 
peared in the village and began to bob through the darkness 


towards the beach. The scene reminded me of the night when 
Arthur Repetto had returned unexpectedly from the Nightingale 
trip, but this time I saw it from the opposite point of view. As 
we came in through the kelp-reef, the women were already 
waiting with pots of hot tea and boys were waving smoky torches 
to guide us in. 


Season of Spite 

EARLY in May the island was assaulted by an easterly gale. The 
surf roared right up under the cliffs and lashed itself into a fine 
frenzy, smashing one of the boats and snatching away the lower 
portion of Little Beach Road. Seen from the cliff-top, the sea 
was a mass of churning white that drove in headlong stampede to 
the shore, thundering at the rock-face until it vibrated under one's 
feet. Flecks of salty spume, like foam from gaping jaws, were 
hurled high by the breakers. White froth seethed and jostled 
about the black rocks that stood impregnably in the surf, and the 
sea flung about them its stinging spray, only to be blown back like 
smoke by the wind. 

The gale lasted for four days. At night the island seemed to 
quiver and groan like a ship in a storm. The fifth day dawned a 
tremulous gold, the air washed clean, the contours of rock and 
headland scoured by the wind. A rainbow trembled into exis- 
tence and alighted tiptoe on the sea. Water drained in several 
cascades from the rim of the mountain; 'watrons' bubbled 
brimful to the cliff-edge; the big fall arched its swelling neck, 


the crest of it blown back upwards in a mane of spray. ' Did you 
never see water fly uphill?' laughed the islanders, happy like 
stormy petrels when the wind blew. 

Before midday Arthur Repetto reported large quantities of 
wood washed ashore in the region of Pigbite. Five dinghies 
made journeys to the beaches beyond Big Point and the men 
discovered that wood lay all along the * eastward.' They brought 
word, too, that some thousands of tons of earth had slipped into 
the sea near Sandy Point where the slight fall in March had almost 
brought disaster to the apple outing. 

Normally an islander finding drift-wood claimed it as his own. 
If he was unable to carry it home at once, he would 'put it up,' 
that is, build it into a neat stack beyond the reach of the surf. 
Another islander finding it would know from the stack that the 
wood had been claimed. But on this occasion there was so 
much wood and the surf was still so menacing that Chief named 
a day for all able men to go round to the eastern beaches and 
'put up' the wood lying there, so that it would not be washed 
away. It was then to be shared equally. 

In the week following the storm, four little American ' liberty' 
ships, all eastward bound, put in to the island one after another. 
They had suffered damage to their cargoes and radio equipment. 
Unfortunately the sea was too heavy for the islanders to gain 
much trade from the unexpected visitors. Two days after the 
last one left a small party of us stood in the evening and watched a 
ship's rescue raft float in from the sea on to the beach at Flat- 
rocks, where the island men secured it. The rations were gone, 
but the fresh- water tank was still half full. 

For some weeks the wind remained in a turbulent mood. The 
air was thick with dust and litter blown from the thatch of the 
cottage roofs. Walking was difficult and children were kept 
indoors. It was dangerous to approach the cliff- top except in 
human chains of three or four, holding on to one another's hands. 
The wind did not blow steadily, but in bursts and salvoes, and the 
villagers advised us : * When you hear a puff comin', stand or duck 
till it's past then go on quickly.' 


On Herald Point the operator huddled over his instruments, 
listening to the walls battered by relentless gusts, feeling the 
floor tremble and the whole hut shake, watching his aerials 
whirled around like skipping-ropes. After four hours the relief 
operator, in flapping oilskins, came scudding before the wind, 
like a full-rigged schooner or a mud-spattered goose with her 
plumes buffeted awry. Flying past, he caught at the fence outside 
the hut and hung there bedraggled for a moment before lurching 
forward, his outstretched hands pawing for the door. Once 
inside he peeled off his dripping oilskins, climbed out of his sea- 
boots, and collapsed in the chair. The relieved operator laced his 
sou'wester under his chin and launched himself out into the 
turmoil. Regaining his feet and bent almost double, he began 
to battle his way back towards the quarters, stopping every few 
inches in his progress to turn and lean on the wind while he 
regained his breath. Sometimes, giving up the attempt, he came 
flying back like a wet rag blown against the fence. 

There were nights when the wind dropped. In its place there 
was snow on the mountain peak, and the air was gripped in the 
iron chill of the pack-ice creeping slowly northward from the 
Antarctic. Other nights were so black that the middle watch- 
man on his way out to the hut at midnight would stumble right 
past it en route for the cliff-edge, where only the rumble of the 
surf, suddenly louder, would pull him up sharply, with one foot 
exploring tentatively the empty darkness in front of him ; or his 
glimmering torch would unexpectedly reveal beneath his very- 
toes the black yawn of Hottentot Gulch. Then the anxious 
operator on duty in the hut would open the door and peer out, 
only to see a wavering light coming from the wrong direction 
and, remembering the island tales of Jack-o'-lantern, would 
hurriedly slam the door. 

Towards the end of May the weather improved a little. 
There were intervals of sunshine poignantly bright, and the air 
held a tinge of melancholy, colouring the scene which, soon now, 
we should be leaving. The land sloped away from the Goat 
Ridge on the far side of Hottentot Gulch in a way that had long 


i. Reg (Bunty) Rogers, his wife Dorothy, and children. 

A Tristan child of to-day. 
She is wearing shoes bought 
from the store. 

2. Johnny Repetto, his wife 
Margaret, and children. The 
boy's sailor-suit, the shoes 
worn by Johnny and his wife, 
and the slightly shorter 
feminine dresses reveal post- 
war fashions. 


become familiar through the windows of the wireless hut. And 
those cottages, so low, so grey, so earth-born under their steeps 
of bleached thatch! Their identity was lost among the bolder 
outlines of nature. Through the haze of sun-shot mist the village 
became almost invisible, a confusion of irregularities among the 
rocks and gullies, a crumble of dust at the mountain foot. It 
was impossible to believe that there really were homes there. 

At close quarters nothing could have been more desolate than 
the cottage gardens, now that even the few geraniums and dwarf 
sunflowers had died. If the islanders had all died too, or disap- 
peared, like the goats and the seals, it would have taken the wind 
and the rain and the sun only a year or two to obliterate all traces 
of their lives there. Stone walls would have tumbled among the 
boulders ; thatch and rafters would have caved in, becoming again 
mere hay and sticks ; the grass would have sprouted through the 
floors and around the doorsteps. Nature, which had already 
devoured the huts on Stony Beach and Inaccessible Island, was 
always waiting just round the corner of the mountain. 

At Whitsun came an annual event in which all the men and boys 
and dogs of the settlement took part. This was the great 
Rat Hunt at the Potato Patches. 

The 'hunt' occupied a whole day. It was a cold day, but keen, 
clear, and fine, with a spring in the turf and a tingle in the air. 
During the morning most of our party found an opportunity of 
joining the outing. The men were divided into gangs, under 
leaders, and the hunt took the form of a competition. They 
were armed with 'spears' made from sticks with large fish-hooks, 
hammered out straight, fastened to the ends. The real hunting 
was done by the dogs, half a dozen or so attached to each team: 
they located the nests among the walls of the enclosures ; they 
announced their finds with barks and eager yelps, then stood by, 
as the nests were uncovered, to pounce upon the rats. The men 
and boys assisted by stabbing with their spears among the loose- 
piled stones or lunging at the rats as they broke cover. As each 
rat was killed one of the boys would pick it up, nip the base of its 


tail between his thumb and forefinger and, with a sharp, deft 
movement, remove the outer skin, leaving a blood-stained stem. 
These tail-skins were kept as a record of the number of rats killed. 
At the end of the day achievements would be compared and the 
team holding most tails would be the winners. There was no 
prize, but the element of competition stimulated the hunters. 

The dogs needed no stimulation. As the men pulled aside the 
stones where a nest had been found, Watch and Bruno and the 
others stood waiting, their jowls drooling and every limb 
quivering with eagerness for the kill. Their fever spread to the 
men. There was tension in waiting to see which way the rats 
would jump ; there was savage enthusiasm in stabbing frantically 
at the would-be escapers ; there was fierce triumph in hearing the 
squeal of a skewered victim. Grey bodies, with pale, exposed 
bellies and red, raw tail-stems strewed the grass. Blood smeared 
the hands that nipped off the tails ; blood dyed the spikes of the 
miniature * spears'; blood raced in the veins of the hunters, 
colouring cheeks that tingled in the frosty air. 

There was little talking. The only sounds were the excited 
barking of the dogs as they found a nest, their agonized whining 
as they waited for it to be uncovered, the squeaking panic ot the 
rats in the wall before they darted out, the panting of the men as 
they jumped and stabbed, and most animal-like of all the 
occasional yell of human triumph as spike pierced flesh. 

At midday the women appeared, bringing the men's lunches in 
sheepskin bags. Even Widow Charlotte came, balancing her 
great, unwieldy body on the back of her diminutive donkey, 
Nancy. Meals were prepared and eaten in a little stone hut, 
where a fire had been lit. On a day that was ideal for the enjoy- 
ment of food in the open air it seemed to us ridiculous to crowd 
into a dark interior, dense with wood-smoke and steam from 
boiling potatoes ; but the islanders would have thought it barbaric 
to eat out of doors in the presence of women and 'outsiders.' 
They filled the hut, the men standing or squatting on the earthen 
floor, the older women sitting on boxes and bags of potatoes, while 
the younger ones jostled for places at the fire. Even the dogs 


squeezed inside, sniffing and snarling at one another in the 
sharpened rivalry of the chase. 

The islanders had no conception of organizing such gatherings 
on a communal basis. As in all other aspects of island life, it was 
every family for itself, and there were shouts of anger and scorn 
for the housewife who failed her men-folk by losing to a more 
thrusting neighbour & chance of getting her pot on the fire. 

After lunch the hunt continued until the wintry sunset stained 
the sea and the mountain-face with the same blood colour as 
daubed the hands of the hunters. The air became thick and 
murky, as if glutted with bloodshed. The dogs tired of yelping 
and the gangs of men converged with slow, satisfied steps on the 
road, where the women waited with the donkeys. Bloody 
trophies were counted and recounted, amid argument and 
contradiction. Johnny Repetto's team was finally acknowledged 
the winner, with 133 tails. Johnny flourished them aloft in a 
crimson hand and declared that he would hang them in triumph 
above his mantelpiece. Margaret, his wife, with sharp, hand- 
some features and snapping black eyes, threatened instead to feed 
them to him in soup for his supper. 

In all, 620 rats were killed that day at the Patches; but there 
would be hundreds more to gnaw the potatoes before the spring 


The Seas Bounty 

AUGUST, as old Gaeta remarked, was a 'rusty' month the last, 
raw edge of winter, grating like a rusted file. The breeze was 
still a cold blade, cutting the sea into sharp ridges. Snow was 
seen on the peak by the men out in their fishing-dinghies: for 
there were intervals of fine, if bleak, weather, during which 
fishing was the main activity. 

When the lee was up' that is, when the wind was from the 
south or south-east and the sea immediately off the settlement was 
in the shelter of the mountain many dinghies might be seen 
bobbing on the relatively calm water. There would be good 
catches, at this time of the year, of snoek, blue-fish, red soldier- 
fish, cod, mackerel, 'five-finger ' and, nearer inshore, crawfish or 
crayfish. Small cuttle-fish or, as the islanders called them, 
'catfish' were used as bait, the men and the boys tearing pieces 
from the jelly-like tentacles with their teeth to fix to the hooks. 
The village folk liked the snoek and the blue-fish. Often the 
men would row out two or three miles in search of the larger 
blue-fish and were very disgruntled when they brought inboard 
by mistake a great steambras, which they could not eat. We 
preferred the flavour of the small soldier-fish and five-finger. 

Whales were a constant nuisance to the fishermen. Schools 



of them were now back in the vicinity of the settlement, often 
close in to the shore. Throughout the day and more especially 
at night they could be heard blowing regularly sounding off the 
watches, it seemed, on their weird, watery trumpets. They 
always followed the calm water, and so, when conditions were 
most suitable for the island fishermen, the whales would be 
basking and playing in the lee just off the beaches. They did not, 
of course, attack the boats, being generally placid and not 
unamiable creatures: seen at close quarters from the boats, as 
they stood upright on their tails looking like immense bottles 
floating upside-down in the water, the expression of their faces 
shaggy with barnacles, like long whiskers was almost benign. 
But they had a habit of rising directly underneath boats or so close 
alongside that they made rowing impossible. One whale, 
breaking water close to a dinghy, canted it over so suddenly that 
Sidney Glass was thrown overboard and landed on the whale's 
back. The whale submerged, carrying Sidney with it, but, 
instead of sounding, surfaced again a few yards farther off, still 
bestridden by the sodden, breathless islander. The rest of the 
boat's crew cheered and shouted with laughter. When Sidney 
had forsaken his mount and swum back, he was helped into the 
boat by his brother Godfrey, with no greater harm than a cut in 
his leg from the hard, sharp edge of the whale's fin. 

Sharks also swam in these waters. Sometimes the islanders 
killed one, but rarely troubled to bring it ashore. I did see one 
that had been killed and brought to the beach by Johnny Baptist 
Lavarello. Its great, grinning mouth, about a foot across, was 
armed with a double row of teeth. The jaws had to be levered 
open with a strong stick and when released they slammed shut 
like a steel trap. When Johnny removed some of the shark's 
skin, the flesh appeared remarkably white and looked edible. 
The islanders had never tried eating it, though they sometimes 
boiled down the liver, from which they obtained a very clear oil 
for burning in their lamps. 

More frequently they made oil from the blubber of sea- 
elephants. These monsters were about the strangest of the 


creatures that formed the islanders 5 harvest from the waters 
around them. They belonged to the same family as the seal and 
sea-lion, but were much bigger, the longest being as much as 
twenty feet, with stiff whiskers and two long, down-curving 
tusks or fangs. The islanders spoke of sea-leopards with spotted 
coats, but I never saw one of these. I had seen three sea-ele- 
phants on Tristan, and the fourth was shot by the Rogers twins, 
'Bunty' and Rudolph, on Big Beach one morning in August. 

When I went down to see it the creature was still alive, 
although it had been shot through the left eye. Its eyeball had 
emerged tri-partially out of the socket, rather like a section of a 
telescope. The other eye was half closed, but showed by its 
brightness that life still painfully existed. The great body was 
smeared with blood intermingled with fine grains of black sand 
that were almost indistinguishable from the hundreds of flies that 
had settled on the animal's head. The flies crawled into the 
half-bunged eye and out on to the parapet of the blinded one. 
They wallowed in the thick, bubbling blood that oozed from the 
nostrils. The elephant was bleeding internally and every attempt 
at breathing was choked by the blood flowing into throat and 
nostrils. The creature retched, with convulsive heavings of its 
huge fat carcass. The convulsions sent rippling movements 
along its flabby sides and forced the blood, mingled with bile and 
water, to gush out of the gaping mouth and to spurt from the 
nostrils in two streams, of which the arc gradually diminished 
as the retching stopped, until there was merely a treaclish dribble. 

I asked Bunty to kill the elephant at once. He said that he 
couldn't spare another bullet, but he poked a stick into the flabby 
belly and rocked the body a few times on its side. All the 
muscles tightened spasmodically in one last, gigantic retch that 
sent the blood washing out of the yawning, straining mouth in 
such a flood that even the flies rose in a cloud from the animal's 
face and settled again only as its head fell back in the purpled 
sand, finally exhausted. The one unmutilated eye was almost 
closed, and over it was spreading a glassy film. A few subsiding 
swells undulated the soft belly and the sea-elephant was dead. 


The twins left it on the beach and returned to the settlement 
to fetch their donkeys to carry the blubber. They were going to 
skin the elephant in the afternoon. 

It was a fine but sombre day, with the wind from the south- 
east, so that five dinghies were off fishing in the lee-water north 
of the settlement. At about two o'clock in the afternoon I 
walked along the Upper Road with little Bernard Dominic 
Repetto and three unsaddled donkeys, halter-led. *Barnett/ 
as he was called, an intelligent boy of about twelve, pointed 
knowingly to the distant white caps east of the settlement and 
observed that the 'heas'erly breeze' was 'working out.' By late 
afternoon, he prophesied, the wind would have moved right 
round to the east and the sea would be choppy off the beach. 

The twins had already been busy for some time on Big Beach, 
skinning the elephant. When we arrived I was startled to see a 
naked, red carcass that had a horrifyingly human aspect as it lay 
on its back in the sand. With blood-dripping fingers Bunty was 
holding up one of the flippers while he cut away the last patch of 
skin from under the arm-pit. The bone of the flipper stuck out 
alarmingly like a human elbow. The thick, grey skin had now 
been completely removed from the body as far up as a line round 
the neck and under the chin. Below that line the body was raw 
meat: above, the grey face preserved a look of absurd geniality, 
with its long, stiff whiskers standing out like those of some 
martial old gentleman lying on his back in the sedate, pot-bellied 
nudity of his bath. 

Bunty and Rudolph began cutting away the thick layer of fat 
from beneath the skin for blubber. They were 'assisted' by a 
number of boys, aged from six upwards, who had assembled on 
the scene. Donald Hagan, I noticed, was inevitably among 
them: he would not have missed any adventure on the beach. 
Satisfied with having got their hands and arms smeared with 
blood, the boys ran off into the surf which was already making up 
heavily on the beach. They splashed about, trying to rescue a 
small cask that had drifted in but was carried away from them by 
the receding surf at every attempt to salvage it. 'Barnett,' 


considering himself at twelve years old one of the men of the 
party, remained with Bunty and 'Twin 5 and remarked with con- 
tempt on the behaviour of 'those boys. 5 

When the work of stripping was finished and the lengths of skin 
and blubber had been laid across the backs of the three sad-eyed, 
acquiescent donkeys, the boys eagerly rolled the carcass of the 
sea-elephant down to the edge of the water, where the surf 
reached out and snatched it back. For a while the red body was 
rocked up and down, as if affectionately, by the waves. It 
seemed even to come to life again, curling and rolling in the 
water, still with that shocking resemblance to a human body. 
A couple of sea-hens, having waited their opportunity, wheeled 
low and settled on the floating corpse, pecking at its eyes* The 
boys waited long enough to 'fire 5 stones at the birds before 
following the men and the slow-stepping donkeys up the road 
from the beach. The sun was already mellowing the sky in the 
west; and, as 'Barnett 5 had foretold, the breeze had 'backed 5 so 
considerably that the choppiness of the sea off the settlement was 
making the fishing-dinghies 'pynte 5 one after another for the 


Scraping Cards 

IN A GUST of energy and of almost predatory goodwill, I had been 
painting the interior of David's house, using paint smuggled from 
our own stores. The supply had been sufficient for only one 
thin coat but for the present the boarded insides of the cottage 
shone sleekly in two shades of battleship-grey, and the name- 
board of the Mabel Clark above the fire-place gleamed a dark 
green, with proud black lettering. For the duration of my 
surreptitious activity the living-room had been vacated and the 
family had moved into the 'east side'-the smaller room occu- 
pied by David's mother. So, when I came to the house in the 
evening, after sneaking a glance of stolen pride into the long, 
glossy-walled state-room, which now looked like the dim after- 
cabin of a timbered ship , I had to scrape open the badly hung door 
of the inner partition and join the company in the less resplendent 
apartment of the 'heas'soyde.' , , , i . fl 

It was a square room, with a particularly solid-looking fire- 
place and well-trimmed, flush stone walls, which had not been 
like the walls in David's part of the house-lined with wood. 


OH Susan had tried to improve their appearance with cuttings 
from ancient magazines that had been left by one of the ministers. 
That she had not understood many of the crudely coloured illus- 
trations was clear from the fact that she had pasted them on the 
wall upside-down. However, this made little difference now, 
since most of them had peeled loose and hung down in tattered 
fringes, casting odd shadows in the lamplight. If the room had 
been submitted to the hard, revealing brilliance of electric light, 
it would have appeared bare and shabby ; but the friendly glow of 
a bird-oil lamp awoke restless shadows in the corners, made a 
fantastic map of the cracks and depressions in the wall surface 
and evoked the inherent mystery of household objects. 

On the table against the wall, beside the teapot standing in 
readiness for my visit and the container of petrel fat in which 
the lamp-wick burned, lay a little pile of sheep's wool, picked, 
washed, and oiled ready for carding. And beside the hearth, in 
easy reach of the wool on the table, Old Susan, seated on an up- 
ended cask, plied the two wooden * cards' on her knee. She did 
not raise her eyes as I entered, but her low, cracked voice called a 
greeting across the room and invited me to sit down, while her 
hands continued without interruption their rhythmical scratching 
of one card on the other. From a lean, dark face at the other 
side of the hearth came a flash of splendid white teeth as David 
gave me his warm, shy smile of welcome. 'Good evenings* 
over, I found a seat near Emily on the long, blanket-covered 
couch which evidently served as Susan's bed. 

David relapsed into the pose that was his customary relaxation 
after a day's fishing or 'puttin' in.' Perched on a box, his feet 
set firmly apart, his elbows on his knees, back rounded, he gazed 
into the flames and sucked in the hollows of his bronze cheeks as 
he drew at his pipe. A forelock of black hair was brushed 
across the upper part of his brow, where the skin, screened from 
the weather by the peak of his cap, was surprisingly pale. He 
leaned forward to blow up the embers under the pot in which 
water was boiling for my 'drink,' then turned on his seat and 
taking his pipe from his mouth asked: *Iss you-all comin' along of 


the hoighlanders to Noightingale this month for pinnamin heggs ? * 
I told him that it was unlikely that I should be able to join this 
trip. He seemed distressed: to David it was a prospect for 
regret that I should leave Tristan without visiting Nightingale 

Against the third wall, on a bench, sprawled Wilson, Emily's 
unregarded suitor, his chin sunk on his sullen chest, his long legs 
in white woollen stockings stretched out in self-assertive non- 
chalance. He was trying to ignore the fact that he was ignored. 
But a malicious croak from old Susan 'What you iss sitting there 
fa', Wilson? Ain't you got no talk?' repeatedly shattered his 
precarious composure. The old woman sat upright on her little 
keg, her feet close together, head slightly lowered, her billowing 
skirts almost hiding the seat. Her lower lip was thrust out, her 
old eyes half closed amid wrinkling skin, her wispy eyebrows 
shot up in a myopic stare at the work in which her hands but not 
her mind were absorbed. A faded green kerchief was knotted 
about her head, with a roll of grey hair and fine silver threads 
showing in front. A grotesque shadow wavered on the wall 
alongside her like the silhouette of a witch engaged in some 
sinister ritual. 

Emily's mother and her young sister Angela and the two boys, 
Donald and Piers, were already asleep in the 'west side,' 
breathing the smell of fresh paint which had kept the children's 
curiosity alive for days. 

Among the flickering lights and the dark, still figures in their 
sdmbre poses, the centre of life and colour in Susan's room was 
Emily herself. Even while she sat quietly at my side on the bed, 
she seemed full of vitality. Leaning my shoulders back against 
the frail partition wall, I could watch the poise of her head with 
its gleaming black hair gathered at the nape of the neck, the 
glowing curve of her cheek, like the side of a dusky peach, the 
mobile play of her rounded features as she turned her vivacious 
attentions from one person to another. She sat erect on the edge 
of the couch, wearing a bright, yellow-patterned dress 'Yalla' 
for jallous ! ' she always said and a red sash. Ostensibly she was 


knitting, as the island women invariably were, but at every 
teasing remark that babbled from her lips, her hands holding the 
needles fell still in her lap. Her mother usually had to finish in 
haste the knitting of any garment that Emily had promised. 

By now her shyness had completely given place to buoyant 
energy. Springing suddenly from the bed, she bounced towards 
the hearth on her moccasins, with a rustle and sweep of many 
petticoats, to see for herself why the water was taking so long to 
boil. Her movement in that dark room with its motionless 
figures was like the bustling of a noisy bird of gay plumage a 
bird that was plump enough to make the floor-boards vibrate 
under its feet. 

'What's got into 'at owd pawt? ' she inquired of the chimney, 
and gave the pot a thrust farther into the red crumbling sticks. 

Crouching on her heels before the hearth, her skirts outspread 
on the floor, she looked back mockingly over her shoulder, her 
cheeks curving and her fathomless dark eyes dancing like the fire- 

'WanV you didn't bring me no sweets from you' canteen 
to-noight?' she demanded. Then, relapsing into the third 
person and addressing the room at large, as was a habit of hers, 
she exclaimed in a lilting drawl: 'Moind jou, 'at man iss a mean 

Her father muttered rebukingly down his pipe-stem, and the old 
woman, without looking up from her scraping cards, screeched 
in a thin, quavering voice : 

* Boye de Good Massy, 'at Hemly iss a higorant gal ! ' 

Emily's lips parted in a smile of delight at having so impudently 
outraged the island code of hospitality. With her brown fingers 
she tore a morsel to eat from one of the freshly caught fish that 
hung to dry, belly-opened, from hooks in the wide chimney- 
place. As soon as the pot boiled she snatched it from the fire 
and proceeded to make a brew of that anonymous * drink' which 
was the token of welcome. 'Teeming out' a cupful, she 
advanced on me with careful, mincing steps, balancing in one 
hand the cup and saucer and in the other a bowl of ' sweetening.' 


This evening ritual was always an occasion of exaggerated polite- 
ness and barely constrained mirth. 

While I sipped the hot, black liquid and David smoked and 
Emily chattered, the brushing of old Susan's wool-cards continued 
with unremitting monotony. It paused only when she stopped 
to remove a roll of wool from the lower card and drop it on the 
growing pile of such rolls on the seat of a chair that she had 
turned around to face her ; the chair stood waiting in the middle 
of the lamp-lit room, patiently, like an absorbed child listening 
to a story at its nurse's knee. The old woman took a fresh 
handful of wool from the table, flicked it on to the upper card and 
subsided again into the slow rhythm of her relentless wrist action. 
The same performance was repeated over and over again. 

David threw some more sticks on the fire. Little flames shot 
up at once, flickering on the various cooking-pots, lighting up the 
cobwebs at the back of the chimney, and chasing tiny shadows 
among the lumps of soot that caked the sloping firestone & 
distinguishing feature of the Hagan cottage. The wood was fairly 
green and sizzled when it was first thrown on. Sap oozed from it 
in a whitish froth, and David observed that the men sometimes 
used this as a shaving-soap. They also used wood-ash as soap for 
washing, when nothing better was available. 

Eventually Emily teased herself into tiredness and impulsively 
curled up on the bed like a cat, at my back, her face buried in the 
pillow. My left hand was underneath her side, tightly clutched 
in her own. It was pleasant to grasp a hand that was young and 
gentle, yet strong and used to hard work, the knuckles roughened 
but the palm soft and warm and before long a little moist. She 
was drowsy, yet still half awake. When some turn in the 
desultory talk amused her, a subdued gurgle emerged from the 
pillow and my wrist beneath her side felt the ripple of her 
stomach. I wondered whether David understood that while I 
replied solemnly to his remarks about potatoes and boat trips, 
his daughter and his guest were indulging in the only physical 
intimacy that was possible in the presence of the family. 

I felt completely at my ease in that room. David's voice was 


low and very slow, and there were long, unstrained pauses in 
which I heard above the scrape of the wool-cards the rising wind 
in the chimney, the crackle of wood collapsing on the red hearth, 
and interminably the distant boom of the surf. The tender 
flame of the lamp had become smaller and was haloed in a faint, 
golden mist: the wick needed pricking up with a pin. But no 
one made the effort. Presently Emily began to snore in a most 
unfeminine key and her hand relaxed its grip on mine, which had 
become very hot and almost numb. The evening had arrived at 
that point when David took off his moccasins and changed his 
position on the box, leaning back against the wall, stretching out 
his legs, crossing one over the other and bringing one forearm 
across his body to cup the elbow of the other, which still held his 
pipe to his mouth. By now, however, both our pipes were 
smoked out ; we merely sucked on them and clicked the stems 
between our teeth as occasionally we talked. 

So, after the laughter and the teasing, the evening petered out 
quite naturally, like a sputtering candle or a sinking fire, until 
the visitor rose and left with a quiet 'Good night' leaving 
behind the disgruntled but ever-tenacious Wilson the latch of 
the outer door rattling jaggedly in the still night. 


Time to Go 

INSIDE the hut the only sound was the buzzing of flies, that 
announced the return of spring. Outside the sunshine was 
warm, but a breeze ruffled the sea. A few clouds drifted oh, 
so slowly! round the rim of the mountain. From the south 
window were visible some cottages at the western end of the 
village, where the road emerged through a deep cutting behind an 
outlying house (Willy Lavarello's, wasn't it?) and wound its way 
out towards the Potato Patches. Occasional figures passed along 
that road, some of them men, some of them donkeys. Thatch 
and grass were bleached, cottages and rocks were the same sad 
grey, barely distinguishable one from the other. Those black 
holes were doorways and windows. On one of the garden walls 
gleamed a white speck washed stockings, perhaps. And round 
the gable-end of a cottage a splodge of green was it a bush? 
seemed to be creeping furtively. Behind, the slope of loose red 
stone and rubble, darkening in places to purple, lay steep against 
the wall of the mountain, as if swept there by a giant broom. 

It was all so familiar and tinged lately with a faint nostalgia. 
The end of our exile was near. November was our fourteenth 
month on the island. Every day now, since a message had come 
from the Cape, we looked out to sea with mingled hope and 
dread, expecting our relief ship. 



The seasons had come full circle and we were back in spring. 
Through the open door of the hut appeared the sea, broken only 
by the black spot of a fishing-dinghy and at intervals the white 
plume of a spouting whale. In my ear-phones was the faint, 
insistent note of morse, a voice from across the ocean, from a 
world thousands of miles away. It seemed incredible that those 
tiny sounds could concern us, that listening to them mattered as 
much as watching the man in the fishing-dinghy or the boy riding 
a donkey along the road or even the whale white-watering on 
the horizon. 

Our outlook had veered round to that of the islanders. From 
being 'outsiders' we had become participants in the local life 
guilty at times, perhaps, of interfering. Our intimacy with the 
villagers carried, especially for them, a penalty. It could not be 
kind of us to inspire their affections. We could never really 
share their life: we were in danger of intruding into it. The 
moment we began to feel the attraction of staying, we knew it was 
time for us to go. 

We had seen a peaceful community living without crime, 
policed only by public opinion ; a people surviving on a monoton- 
ous, soft diet, yet with excellent teeth and rugged, healthy 
bodies ; a people with almost no variety of amusement, yet con- 
tented, even happy. At first they had seemed sombre, a little 
forbidding. But the Tristan islanders have been conditioned by 
their isolation. Experience has not taught them how to relax 
with strangers, to smile with the ready warmth of islanders in the 
Pacific or the Caribbean. Too often their shyness makes them 
appear grave and aloof. To us they were unfailingly polite, but 
there was nothing servile about their readiness to say 'Sir' ; even 
among themselves they often used a formality that seemed sur- 
prising in a society where all were familiar neighbours. If at 
times they fell into the habit of begging from us, it was without 
whining or insistence ; and the habit sprang from years of priva- 
tion. Coupled with it were traditions of hospitality and 
generosity ; if the cottage contained little food, that little must be 
given to the visitor and no mention made of the shortage. 


In spite of the inevitable gossip of a tiny settlement, there were 
few open quarrels. The only fights we saw were friendly 
tussles such as were a part of the local courting customs. 
Fathers were strict and sometimes harsh with their children; but 
this no more indicated cruelty than the beating of dogs and 
donkeys. Such treatment was in accord with the hard way of 
life. The men were equally capable of showing a rough affection 
and the family atmospheres were happy. Laughter was much 
commoner than we had at first thought. When unselfconscious 
the islanders showed a humour that was quick and gay, sometimes 
with a keen edge. They had a sharp eye for absurdities, a sense 
of the grotesque, in themselves and others; and they often found 
the vivid turn of speech to express it. 

Above all, they were optimists for all their dour counten- 
ances. Faced with a howling gale, they called it *a good blow' ; 
caught in a downpour of rain, they described the weather as 
* showery.' This language spoke their contentment; and that 
contentment was their greatest danger. Living in isolation they 
knew no competition. Everything on the island belonged to 
them ; they had no neighbouring community to challenge them 
and therefore no motive for aiming at higher standards. Con- 
servatism had become the island disease. The agriculture was 
more primitive than it need have been. This was not due 
entirely to ignorance and lack of tools. The island men knew 
that by varying their crops they could have improved the soil, but 
they did not like to make the change -just as the women did not 
like to change from the old, hand- turned spinning-wheels to the 
treadle-operated ones that had been sent to them, 

The contentment of the islanders led to improvidence. Only a 
small portion of the arable land near the settlement was cultivated 
and the men rarely planted enough potatoes to meet the possi- 
bility of a bad season. The cattle were left to forage for them- 
selves through the winter and many of them died because there 
was not enough grass. The islanders expected this to happen, 
but they trusted that enough animals would survive and that the 
spring would bring fresh grass to fatten them. The men had 


killed off all the birds on the main island, so that the grubs had 
no enemies and feasted securely on the potatoes. Now the 
islanders had to cross to Nightingale and Inaccessible to fetch eggs, 
guano, and oil for cooking; yet with the same rashness they were 
destroying the bird-life on those islands. 

Many of the hardships faced by the village were due to this lack 
of concern about the future. The people were fatalists, hoping 
for the best but inured to the worst. They greeted all adversities 
with the saying: 'We's used to it.' They were used to finding 
their crops spoilt by grubs and rats ; they were used to living on 
fish when there were no potatoes left and on nothing when the 
sea was too rough for the fishing-boats ; they were used to washing 
themselves and their clothes in the cold streams and rubbing their 
teeth clean with a rag dipped in brine ; they were used to a fly 
plague in the summer and a flea plague all the year ; they were 
used to long periods when the world forgot their existence. All 
these conditions were tolerable because they were familiar: the 
only thing hard to bear was change. 

Custom was the ultimate court of appeal. There were no 
laws, either written or orally transmitted; but there were 
standards. These perhaps because an offender knew that he 
would face not merely the sentence of a single judge but the 
opprobrium of a whole society were more rigid than a formu- 
lated code. In a sense many of the islanders were amoral, but 
their behaviour accorded with the highest morality. Honesty 
was the common policy because deception was hard to conceal. 
Promiscuity was rare for the same reason. There was no vice 
and no perversion. Venereal disease was as unknown as measles 
and scarlet fever. In questions of conduct the individual 
succumbed to general opinion. Yet in all practical matters the 
islanders were individualists, incapable of corporate action. The 
settlement was a republic of the simplest kind, bound by accepted 
practice enforced by common consent. It was based* on the 
family, but lacked one essential feature the authority of the 
head. The Chief was merely a spokesman: he might command 
respect, but not obedience. This was not a personal failing, but 


a limitation imposed on his office. There was no reason, to the 
minds of his fellow colonists, for acknowledging in an elected 
one of their own number a wisdom or power transcending theirs. 
This insistence on equality often created an impasse when public 
action was required. When no one would take the lead or make 
the crucial decision the result was inertia. 

The islanders were not exactly lazy. They could work hard 
enough when they appreciated the need; they would strain for 
hours at an oar or heave great stones when building a house: 
but they would rarely combine voluntarily in any communal 
undertaking. Once by co-operative effort they had built the 
church, but only under the direction of a minister. Father 
Rogers. During our stay they had worked in gangs under 
appointed leaders and even for regular hours. Most of the work 
had been for the benefit of the village as much as the station, but 
only the authority of the doctor as commanding officer had made 
it possible. The result was plain for the islanders to see: they 
could achieve far more by such organized activity than by their 
unco-ordinated individual efforts. This was one lesson they had 
learnt from the Navy. 

The settlement owed much in the character and human dignity 
of its inhabitants to its traditions of equality and individualism; 
but only from regulated labour could it expect better living 
conditions or even survival. If the colony was to continue it 
must change. The islanders needed to develop a communal 
sense and to embody that in a form of administration acceptable 
to them all. Some authority would have to be found after the 
war to replace that which the Navy had temporarily provided. 
In the past there had been missionaries, to whom the people had 
paid a deference denied to the Chief. There would probably be 
other missionaries in the future. But it was in secular and 
practical matters that guidance and control were most needed. 
The example of the station had revealed possibilities to the 
islanders improvements which they themselves could make to 
their houses, their sanitation, their farming and social organiza- 
tion, if only they could co-ordinate their energies. 


The Admiralty had its own motives for maintaining a signal 
station on Tristan da Cunha, and the welfare of the islanders, 
though it might be considered incidentally, was not among them. 
Now that our draft was due to leave, we liked to think that our 
presence had conferred some benefit. Other drafts would take 
our place, but ours had made the first impact on the island life. 
After the end of the war, when the station would be dismantled, 
the islanders would never again feel quite so satisfied with their 
world. In some ways that dissatisfaction was the best legacy we 
could leave them. 


Day of Departure 

WITH all the unexpectedness of an impact that has been too long 
awaited, she arrived one morning the ship that was to bring our 
exile to a close, to carry us back to the world of motor-cars, 
cinemas, sophistication, and war. Out of the dawn mist of the 
first day in December she came upon us, a little tramp steamer 
named East Gate, bound from Cape Town to Montevideo. As 
soon as she signalled that she carried reliefs for the operators 
ashore, we knew that our immediate future was settled. Our 
quarters would not accommodate twelve new arrivals and our- 
selves, so there could be no question of waiting for a ship from the 
west to take us to the Cape: 'Doc' had no alternative but to 
request a passage for us aboard the East Gate to South America, 
from which we might make our own way back to the naval base in 
South Africa or perhaps even directly to England. 

The forenoon of that last day was spent by most of our party in 
going the round of the village, saying good-bye to the old people, 
who could not be on the beach in the afternoon to see us depart. 


We paid our farewell visits to Mrs Repetto, Old Sam Swain, 
Andrew the fiddler who had enlivened our dances, and others of 
the village elders, then we retired each to the cottage he knew 
best, to spend the last moments with the islanders who had been 
his special friends. Most of the village men were busy all the 
morning bringing the stores ashore from the ship. The children 
were all down on the cliff-top watching the traffic to and from the 
beach. Only the women and the old men remained in the 

I had always wanted to leave Tristan in sunshine ; and on this 
day the sun shone brighter and stronger than on any previous day 
of our stay on the island. As I walked through the village, from 
the Chief's house up to Old Sam Swain's, I seemed to be seeing it 
all for the first time. In the curiously rarefied sunlight every- 
thing had an extra sharpness, a tension of outline which made it 
appear more immediate, closer, and yet unreal, like a painted 
set on a stage. For fourteen months, the grass, the houses, the 
streams, the mountainside had been familiar sights. Now I was 
perceiving them with a vision that was intense, earnestly so, yet 
objective, even detached in something like that state of brightly 
coloured awareness which comes at the end of a dream, when 
daylight is already seeping beneath one's eyelids and a tiny flicker 
of consciousness is stirring in a corner of one's brain. 

As I stood on the slope below Sam's cottage, in the higher part 
of the village, the sea glittered below, as if in a great, burnished 
bowl. The little steamer appeared absurdly big and close and far 
below me, although I was not really high up, and the blue bowl of 
the sea seemed tipped upwards at the horizon. Every effect 
added to the sense of being an observer, interested but uncon- 
cerned in the scene. Reason said that in a few hours I should be 
on board that ship, bound for another land, but my feet were still 
on familiar turf, my stomach felt no unaccustomed motions and 
the rest of my body had as yet no evidence of change. 

There was merely a further period of waiting, an extension of 
that which had gone on for several weeks. The sea looked bluer 
and the grass looked greener than ever before. There was a 


poignancy in their brightness that day. The air had a strange 
clearness and emptiness, and the rattle of the ship's winch filled 
the whole of the world with its noise. 

The women were more affected by our coming departure than 
the men. Most of the girls were in tears and many of their 
mothers on the verge of them. Charlotte's coarse features were 
red and puffy. I had lunch at David Hagan's house and contrived 
to be alone with his daughter for a few futile moments of farewell. 
I was given a knitted 'ganzey' that had been hurriedly finished in 
time for the occasion and which, after its final washing, had been 
lying out to dry on the wall of the house enclosure all the 

Shortly after midday the relief-party, which seemed in no 
hurry to set foot on Tristan, came ashore and made our acquain- 
tance. Their first impressions of the island seemed to depress 
them. During the afternoon took place the general migration to 
Big Beach to watch our departure. Little Joseph Glass and his 
brother Conrad carried my kit down to the beach. All the 
women and children were assembled there. There was another 
period of waiting. Gaeta's wife said it was the hottest day she 
could remember on Tristan. The sand scorched the feet of the 
dogs so that they yelped in pain and ran back up the cliff road to 
the grass. It burned even through our shoes and must have been 
almost intolerable to the islanders in their thin moccasins. Some 
of the men were still making journeys to the ship in their boats, 
others stood on the beach, waiting. The women formed them- 
selves into orderly ranks and sat, in utter silence, waiting, on the 
hot, black sand. They all wore their best dresses, and the little 
girls had on their coloured sashes and white 'kappies.' 

Since we were leaving the sooner we got aboard the ship 
the better. Yet, for some unformulated reason, we too were 
waiting. At length, when we considered that most of the stores 
were ashore and after all of our heavier kit had gone out to the 
ship, w r e began the ordeal of leave-taking. The women stood up, 
still in their brightly coloured rows. Passing among them, we 
received a kiss and a hand-shake from each and said good-bye. 


All tears were suppressed now and only an occasional sob dis- 
torted a farewell smile. Conscientiously, but a little hurriedly, 
we moved from one bright dress to another, like bees passing 
along rows of sweet-peas. Faces went by like blossoms, some 
dark, some pale, hardly distinguishable one from another. 
Sometimes the wrong name was attached to one : I said * Good- 
bye, Lily' to Violet, forgetting that I had already kissed her 
sister's face. Somewhere among them I found Emily's lips, 
but they were gone before I realized it and others imprinted in 
their place. Then we shook hands with the men on the beach 
and scrambled into one of the waiting boats, suddenly intent on 
getting ourselves and our personal belongings safely and quickly 
on board the ship. The actual departure was completed in a few 
bewildering minutes. Was that Joe Repetto pushing the boat 
out? There was Gaeta on the beach now! Wave to Gaeta! 
Joe leaping into the boat as we rode clear of the shingle. Afloat. 
Too late! Should not set foot on that beach again. Too deep 
already even to jump out and wade ashore, if I wanted to. We 
had departed. 

But having done that we still took a long time to get away 
from the island . Slowly the boat was brought round , just beyond 
the surf, and Joe rigged the rudder .and tiller, taking his time 
while we rocked among the kelp. We all watched him intently, 
not looking back at the beach. Then the chuck of oars started 
and we moved into the middle of the kelp-reef. I had to look 
back now, but it wasn't possible to see properly so long as a thick, 
golden mist kept quivering before my eyes. Rapid blinking 
seemed to clear the mist. The watchers on the beach were all 
very still, the women sitting again in their gaily dressed rows, as if 
waiting primly to be photographed. None of them waved or 
cheered. They just sat watching. All looked very much alike, 
young and old. But there was one at the end of a row, in a white 
dress with a red kerchief, bright red, over smooth, dark hair. 
She sat perfectly still, staring back until she became a white blur. 
Then her head went down, and the woman behind her a large 
one in widow's black put a hand on her shoulder. 


I sat near Joe Repetto in the stem, and he turned to me and 
said: 'You-all got a foine day for to leave the hoighland! 5 I 
swallowed something that seemed the size of a petrel's egg before 
replying. From now on we all looked steadily ahead at the ship 
we were approaching. The island men were never very talkative 
in the boats. 

It was about three-thirty in the afternoon when we climbed the 
ship's ladder. We had expected her to be getting under way 
almost at once. What we had not counted on was being on 
board, within half a mile of the beach until well after dusk, with 
nothing to look at but the island and with the island boats still 
coming off to carry stores to the beach. We went below, we 
stored our belongings, we made tea, we came up on deck again. 
The island was- still there. Slowly the sun sank on the clearest, 
warmest day we had known there. Across the dark void in the 
mountain rim at the top of Hottentot Gulch a white bird sailed 
gracefully. It reminded me of the white dress that I had seen 
months earlier, fluttering among the rocks high up on the slope. 
That dress ! I had caught up with it, but where was it now? If 
anything moved at all on the island, it was no longer visible to us. 

As the sun set by Inaccessible, it stained the sea red, and the 
whole rugged face of Tristan seemed splashed with a crimson dye. 
Gradually the colour darkened and the tiny houses faded into the 
black shape of the mountain, looming upwards in the dusk. 
Several of us stood at the rail of the ship, staring for a long time to 
see a light from the cottages. David's house, being white and in 
the foreground, remained visible after the others, then slowly 
faded, as if passing out of existence. We kept on staring. From 
the station, where the newcomers were settling in, lights 
occasionally pierced the black-out. From the village not a 
glimmer! Perhaps, however, from behind those dark windows, 
eyes watched as the ship at last stole away into the night. 

A strange night it was for us, alternating between periods of 
wild hilarity, down in our new mess, with the prospect of shore 
leave in South America, of our return to the blessed debauch of 
civilization, and periods of heavy silence, during which figures 


climbed the companion-way from the lighted mess and stood or 
paced in the warm darkness on deck, with the cooling breeze in 
their faces and the sea rushing under the guard-rail. At such 
moments, standing alone, I was conscious of a dull pressure that 
seemed to be located on the left front of my blue jersey. I recog- 
nized it as the impress of a dark head that generally rested there 
at this time in the evening. The feeling was definitely a pressure, 
not an ache but a pressure of emptiness, rather like a dent that 
remains when the weight that caused it has gone. I almost 
believed that when I went below and removed the jersey, the 
dent might be straightened out and the pressure would be felt 
no more. 

We were organized into watches, with the ship's company, 
and after a few restless hours in a strange bunk, I found myself 
keeping the morning look-out in the port after gun-pit. It was 
breezy up there. We were steaming almost due west, and as the 
grey eye of dawn peered bleakly over the horizon astern, it threw 
startlingly into relief the peak of Tristan, still visible in our wake. 
It looked small and incredibly alone. A rock in the sea. Did 
people really live on that rock? It seemed as remote from us, 
from myself, as from the rest of the world. And then I saw 
myself stepping among familiar boulders, through an opening in a 
stone wall, and up the worn steps to a cottage door ; I saw myself 
sitting beside a wide hearth where a pot of water was boiling over 
a wood-fire; I saw a girl standing beside a table, taking a large 
safety-pin from her sash to prick up the wick of a little bird-oil 
lamp, so that its light glowed on her face; I saw her move to the 
fire, crouching on her heels, and I felt her hand rest on my knee 
while she leaned forward to blow up the smoking sticks beneath 
the pot. As she turned her face upwards and smiled, the light 
danced in her dark eyes. The smoke swirled in front of her face, 
hiding it, filling the whole room, causing my eyes to smart. 
Then the breeze, up there in the gun-pit, blew the smoke away, 
and when I looked again the peak was fading from view as the sun 
rose above it. That was at about five o'clock in the morning 
the last time I saw the rock. 


Past and Present 

WE LEFT Tristan da Cunha on ist December 1943. Nothing 
could have been more final than our departure. At first a few 
letters, inadequately addressed in large, child-like handwriting, 
followed us about the world, miraculously surviving the hazards 
of war to catch up with members of our party in distant places. 
But it was impossible for us to keep in touch, either with one 
another or with the islanders. Other countries and other ex- 
periences enveloped us; other drafts took our place on Tristan, 
absorbing the interests of the inhabitants. 

After the war changes came to the island, at first retrogression 
and then progress. The naval outpost was vacated, though the 
main group of buildings was left standing. The weather station 
remained, staffed by meteorologists from South Africa. As in 
earlier days, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel sent 
out a missionary ; but he now lived in the wooden house that had 
been occupied by the naval chaplain, instead of in the old 
missionary' s cottage, long derelict. What had been our mess and 
recreation room became the social hall and the school, supervised 
by the missionary and his wife. For a while conditions were 
almost the same as before the war. The men fished and grew 
potatoes, the women carded, spun, and knitted. Local affairs 
revolved around the church and the 'ministah.' But because the 



meteorological station had to maintain wireless communication 
with the Cape the island did not resume the complete isolation 
it had once known. 

In 1947 the Soviet Antarctic Whaling Fleet put in there and 
exchanged stores for cattle, fish, and sheep. Bartering from 
whale-ships had been the old practice ; but just as the present was 
settling into a likeness of the past the settlement discovered a new 
future. In 1948 an organization was formed in South Africa 
called the Tristan da Cunha Development Company. Marine 
biologists have declared that the main breeding-grounds of what 
the islanders call 'crawfish' are in the waters about Tristan and 
Gough Island ; and there is a demand for frozen and canned craw- 
fish the commodity is called rock lobster in France and the 
U.S.A. The new company set up a canning shed or * factory' on 
Tristan. A little refrigerated ship, Tristania, began to ply 
regularly between the island and the Cape. Now there are two 
ships. They spend the southern summer fishing near Tristan. 
The island men assist, some working with the crews of the ships, 
others operating from the shore, still using their canvas-covered 
boats. The women do the canning in the shed on Big Beach. 

The company has now come under the control of the Colonial 
Development Corporation, which keeps a small staff continuously 
on the island and maintains a non-profit store, at which the 
islanders spend their wages ; for currency has been introduced. 
This last innovation is bound to have mixed results. It enables 
the people to buy clothing and hardware and to vary their fish 
and potato diet with potted food-stuffs; it may also widen the 
gulfs between families, making sharper divisions between rich 
and poor. Already the change of diet has introduced decay to 
the islanders' teeth, once almost perfect. 

As during our stay, the station has its own little community 
separate from the settlement but closely associated with it. In 
the cluster of wooden houses, distinct from the cottages, now 
live an administrator, appointed by the Colonial Service, the 
fish company staff, the missionary, a doctor, a nursing sister, 
an agriculturist and, of course, wives and sometimes children. 


The administrator presides over most matters of island 
organization, but under his direction the Village Council now 
regularly elected continues to meet, and the headman, still 
Willy Repetto, acts as spokesman of local opinion. There is still 
no need for a policeman or a jailhouse. 

The school, named St Mary's after the church, has been placed 
in the charge of a professional schoolmaster and his wife. The 
standard of education among the young people on which the 
future of the settlement largely depends has risen. The school 
staff even includes as pupil teacher Miss Trena Glass, known to us 
during the war as a little, fair-haired child, Sidney's daughter. 

Having learnt the lesson of working in teams for the com- 
munity, the island men have made improvements in the settle- 
ment. They have prepared a site for the erection of a new 
village hall, prefabricated in England. They have extended the 
church to accommodate the growing congregation. Cement 
pillars now support a roof joining the original part to the new 
section. The building has been redecorated and has a new altar 
cloth, pews, and kneelers, supplied from England. Many of the 
people have bought hymn and prayer books through the store. 
The parish has been transferred from the diocese of St Helena to 
that of Cape Town, and last year the Archbishop of Cape Town 
was taken by H. M.S. Magpie to visit the island. He conducted a 
confirmation service in the village church. The total population, 
which presumably still includes the rival congregation of Agnes 
Rogers, now numbers just over 2^0. 

Since 195-3 the British Government has maintained a doctor, a 
nurse, and an agriculturist on Tristan. Among improvements 
being made under their influence are a small hospital, a piped 
water supply to the cottages, a drainage system, and sanitary 
installations at St Mary's School. A small reafforestation scheme 
has been started at Sandy Point. A young pure-bred Hereford 
bull, a ram, and two sheep-dogs have been introduced to improve 
the local strains. In addition to his other work, the agriculturist 
deals with the increasing amount of postal business. A series of 
stamps ranging from a halfpenny in value to ten shillings has been 


printed. They show pictures of island scenes : St Mary's Church, 
the Potato Patches, Nightingale, Inaccessible, the little flightless 
rail to be found only on the latter island, Tristan itself, a group 
of mollymawks and the new fish-canning factory on Big Beach. 

In 1955 a group of young scientists, the Cambridge University 
Expedition to Gough Island, called at Tristan and stayed six 
weeks, surveying and making recordings of local songs and the 
voices of some of the islanders. The information they have 
brought back shows that in spite of the new establishments the 
island way of life has changed very little. The men still find time, 
between spells of fishing for the company, to cultivate their 
patches, haul stone in their bullock carts, build their rough-hewn 
cottages and thatch them with flax. The women still card and 
spin and knit. The old persists beside the new. Housewives 
buy new material, which they make up into old-style dresses, only 
slightly shorter; they still wear head scarves, since hats would be 
useless in the high winds. Shoes for men and women are sold in 
the store. For climbing and beach work the men still wear 
moccasins. But on Sundays they attend church in a rustic 
Victorian formality of dark suits, caps, and black shoes. 

Most of the cottages have been equipped with new beds and 
many have small cooking-stoves, but the open hearth remains the 
source of warmth and the centre of domestic comfort. Wood 
for fuel is as hard to find as ever though as recently as 195-3 a 
ship, the yacht Coimbra, joined the long tally of vessels wrecked 
on Tristan. Peat is nowadays used occasionally for fuel. Bird- 
oil lamps survive but are often replaced by candles bought at the 
store. The station is lit, for a short period of the evening only, 
by electricity, supplied from a dynamo as when the Navy was in 
occupation. The greatest incongruity described by the visiting 
scientists is the sight of a wireless loud-speaker in the living-room 
of every cottage. The wonder of radio, which we took to 
Tristan, has ceased to be a marvel. But it is apparently used as 
much for listening to local radio-telephony conversations as for 
hearing broadcasts from 'outside.' The centre of the islanders' 
world is still the island itself. The strength of that interest has 


still to be tested against the influences that may arrive with the 
newly purchased film-projector to be installed in the village hall. 

About the individual islanders known to us during die war a 
few scraps of gossip have floated across the years. Widowhood 
proved a deceptive blessing to Mrs Repetto and Charlotte Glass: 
both are dead. The former is commemorated in the name of the 
second ship bought by the Development Company, the Frances 
Repetto. The present headwoman is Martha Rogers, a daughter 
of Mrs Repetto. To us Martha never seemed a separate person 
so much as a part of the husband and wife unit always referred to 
as 'Arfa 'n Marfa'; but that combination, though childless, was 
one of the most respected in the village. 

Old Sam Swain failed in his ambition of equalling the long life 
of his grandfather: he died at a mere ninety-two. The oldest 
inhabitant is now Tom Rogers, aged eighty-four. In 1955 Big 
John Glass, the last surviving grandson of the original founder of 
the settlement, died in his eighties. Henry Green, Gaeta, and 
the other 'old hands' have all gone. But the young people 
prosper and multiply. Wilson received the just reward for his 
tolerance of a rival and his submission to scorn: he lost the girL 
Kenneth Rogers, with more certainty of what he wanted and 
more determination to secure it, stepped in and married Emily. 
Each was for the other the best partner the island could offer. 
Among the recordings made by the Gough Expedition and 
included in a B. B.C. broadcast was the cheerful voice of a young 
woman 'with a nice face' Mrs Emily Rogers, 

As consolation prize Wilson gained Kenneth's sister, Marie. 
He is now a respected member of the Village Council. Once a 
loosely tied cardboard box, which had pursued-me to more places 
than I had visited, found its way to my home in England. It con- 
tained a model island boat made by Wilson as a reminder of the 
'good times' we had together in the evenings at David's. Along 
with the 'ganzey' that Emily finished on our last day there; and 
a pair of moccasins that Kenneth sent before his marriage, telling 
me that they were almost as 'fancy' as the pair he was making for 


Emily ; and a set of rather undersized tusks from the sea-elephant 
killed by Bunty and 'Twin/ it forms my collection of curios. 
As evidence they are no more convincing than the objects I saw 
long ago in the museum at Cape Town. The island, with its 
handful of exiles, seems as unreal now as it did then. Its very 
existence is an anachronism. 

When, in January 1957, the royal yacht Britannia took a 
second Duke of Edinburgh to visit the settlement named after 
his predecessor, the world was jogged in its memory. News- 
papers showed scenes and even a face or two half recognized by 
a few people in England. For a moment of history Tristan da 
Cunha emerged from the mist, then faded again an island out 
of time, a rock in the sea, a mere spot on the map. 

dition, without doctor or dentist but with- 
out toothache or disease, makes fascinat- 
ing reading. 

The story is told by a young English 
schoolmaster with a Dutch name who 
spent fourteen months on the island as one 
of a group of Naval telegraphers manning 
a signal station during World War II. 

Those who really "want-to-get-away- 
from-it-all" should consider the possibili- 
ties of this Rock of Exile; those who prefer 
their travel in an armchair will find this 
book a rewarding experience. 

With 15 pages of photographs, a map and 
line drawings.